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Look Good Feel Better: Helping Women With Cancer

When my cousin Linda was diagnosed with cancer, I could not believe it. Ever since I was a little girl, I looked Linda Swimup to her. She was the awesome cousin with a giant pink flowered bedroom and the best dolls. Later she was the beautiful, cool artist cousin who won awards for painting pictures of Jim Morrison and had all The Beatles records. Much later, she was the reason New York City didn’t seem so scary when I moved here. In NYC, Linda gave me a home, taking of care of me and always there when I needed someone. Even as a little girl, when I was afraid to let go of the side of the pool, she taught me how to swim. (Little did I know that this would someday define our relationship.) How could my strong and amazing cousin, someone who who anchored my life, have cancer? It wasn’t possible.

Linda in HawaiiI somehow convinced myself it wasn’t true – or if it were, it would turn out to be nothing. In the beginning it was easy. She looked as gorgeous as always and stayed cheerful and positive. As she went through treatment, however, it became increasingly hard to ignore. I saw her weaken, watched her skin get sallow and her gorgeous shiny hair fall out. Everyone had always talked about how beautiful Linda was, but she never seemed that aware of it or cared much about it either. Even without hair, Linda walked around so unselfconsciously that strangers would say, “You look amazing. I wish I could pull that off but I know I wouldn’t look like you.” She always took it as a compliment and just said thank you. They’d walk away thinking she was so fabulous, never knowing she had cancer.

Then one day she asked me to go with her to Look Good Feel Better at the American Cancer Society. Look Good Feel Better is a program that teaches makeup and hair for women undergoing cancer treatments. It took me off guard because I thought we had an unspoken agreement that she didn’t have cancer. I was so upset. I then realized she had been protecting me, as she always did. And that she, unlike myself, had accepted that she had cancer. I could see more clearly how she felt about it and that it affected how she saw herself. But I was scared to go. I felt that going to a cancer program made it too real – and I was scared to admit that she was sick and it was affecting her more than I let myself believe.

Hope is BeautifulBut when we got there, I saw that the program allowed her to focus just on herself and be with others who were struggling too. As little as she took her beauty seriously, Linda always loved having her makeup done. Look Good Feel Better wasn’t a cure, but it sure did make her happy. And although the program is for someone with cancer it isn’t focused on cancer – giving women time to feel once again like themselves and do something they would’ve enjoyed in any situation. Plus everyone gets a collection of skin care and makeup products to take home. You should have seen the joy on Linda’s face when she got that bag!

I’ve worked with this program over the years, most recently doing makeup for their virtual workshops. These workshops are for women who’d like to learn more about Look Good Feel Better and/or cannot attend one in person.

Several weeks ago I worked with Guggenheim Productions on a Spanish language version hosted by Univison’s Lourdes Stephen of Sal y Pimenta and featured two beauty experts who have conducted LGFB workshops for many years – Hairstylist Petra Muriel and Skin Care Esthetician/Makeup Artist Lilly Rivera.

Petra joined LGFB in 2005. When I asked her what she loves most about LGFB, she said “When women come to us they often feel alone and self-conscious – their skin is parched, hair falling out, features faded, even their nails can turn black. I teach them how to care for and wear a wig, as well as how to create accessories that are comfortable and look great too. Wigs are hard for some–they find them too hot [to wear]. So I make a lot of scarves from t-shirts because they are so comfortable and soft on sensitive skin.” Petra said that while she loves sharing her expertise, the best part is helping women know they are not alone.

Lilly RiveraPetra invited Lilly, who has 35 years of beauty expertise, to join LGFB. Lilly is a character – dynamic, cheerful and funny, with a knack for making women feel relaxed and comfortable. I asked her about that and she said that although she’s never had cancer, she can still relate to a woman who feels insecure about how she looks – because growing up she struggled with these insecurities too. Lilly believes that it’s not about making a woman look like someone else, “it’s bringing back her sparkle, bringing her back to herself. It’s teaching women to see their true beauty.”

I spoke also to the women attending the workshop. Even those reluctant to Courage is Beautifulspeak English brought out photos to show me how they looked at the hardest points of their treatment. You could see in their eyes how excited they were to show me their “before” and “after.” And I saw how they realized they did not have to look like cancer survivors. Instead they looked funky and edgy and cool – just as Linda did when she confidently sported her baldness.

Of course having amazing makeup and hair is wonderful and fun and helps people look as they once did. But more importantly, the program helps connect women and give them back their confidence. Instead of feeling like cancer survivors, they can go out in the world and simply feel fabulous.

As soon as it’s on the LGFB site, I’ll link it here so you can see Lourdes, Lilly and Petra in action. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, take a peek just to see the sheer joy and fun the women are having and how it demonstrates what it means to Look Good Feel Better and have this shared experience together.

If you are a cancer patient and have questions about the program or finding where you can attend a workshop, please feel free to contact me to help you get in touch with the right people. 

Note: To see a LGFB workshop in English, click here.

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