Photo by Jay Paul
Among all the side effects of chemotherapy she was experiencing after her March 2014 diagnosis of breast cancer, there was one that Nancy Carlton hadn’t bargained for. “People tend to treat you differently because of your appearance,” says the 51-year-old western Henrico County resident. “Not in a bad way — everybody’s been very kind — but you do get to a point where, ‘I’m OK, I don’t need so much sympathy.’ ”
During a course of chemotherapy that ended in July, Carlton lost her hair, including her eyebrows and eyelashes, and her skin became pale and sallow. On top of everything else she had to deal with, she became wary of going out in public. “Even if you have a canker sore, you feel like everybody’s focusing on the defects,” she says. “So when you have no eyebrows, no eyelashes, your complexion is super-pale, you have no hair on your head — yeah, you feel like you’re being stared at.”
In May, Carlton took part in Look Good, Feel Better, a program that teaches female cancer patients to manage the cosmetic side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Free to all women going through or just completing cancer treatment, it is a national collaboration between the American Cancer Society, the Personal Care Products Council Foundation and the Professional Beauty Association that is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Locally, classes operate out of the VCU Massey Cancer Centers in Mechanicsville and Richmond, Henrico Doctors’ Hospital, the Bon Secours Cancer Institutes at St. Mary’s and St. Francis hospitals, and the Thomas Johns Cancer Center at Johnston-Willis Hospital.
Class sizes can vary from four to 25 participants. The women spend two hours sharing their experiences; gathering advice on hair, skin and nail care; and undergoing a makeover that teaches them how to even out an irritated complexion, put the color back into their faces, re-
create the appearance of eyebrows and deal with hair loss in general. Each woman receives a sizeable bag of new, brand-name cosmetics and a personal tutorial. “They do half, and I do half,” says Linda Rubin, who’s been a volunteer “class facilitator” for a decade and now also trains other licensed cosmetologists to lead classes. “They have to practice, so they can go home and, if nothing else, just do a little bit — and take away the fear of not doing it right.”
Equally important is the opportunity it provides for the women to see that they’re not alone. “The premise is that they have each other, and they’re all going through the same thing,” says Rubin, who leads classes at Johnston-Willis and St. Mary’s. Many of the women become friends and follow each other throughout their treatment, says Anne Barclay, who oversees all the state’s volunteer-led programs from the American Cancer Society’s Virginia Beach offices. “By the end of the session, they’re whipping off their wigs and scarves and laughing and joking,” she adds.
Carlton participated not as a class attendee, but as a “model” for cosmetologist volunteers undergoing training, led by Rubin, before they qualified as class facilitators. (For confidentiality reasons, actual attendees are difficult to track down afterward.) So while she did not benefit from the camaraderie side of the experience, she did receive the makeover, with all the advice and tips that are usually offered. “I was very happy,” Carlton says. “I went back to work, and everybody was like, ‘Wow, you look fantastic.’
“Mainly for me, it’s been the eyes,” she continues. “With no eyebrows, no eyelashes, and your skin pale-looking, everything just disappears. So making them look more natural was a big help to making me feel better.”
“I’ve never seen anyone not thrilled [after completing the class],” Rubin says. “It really restores their self-esteem, and transforms their outlook.” Barclay says that the women leave feeling pampered and special: “It’s a chance for them to get away from the day-to-day treatment and everything they’re going through.”
For Carlton, it looks as if her struggles are at an end. “Chemo’s over, and I’m feeling good.” Her cancer responded well to the treatment, and her worst fears have been put to rest. Now, she says, “I’m hoping my appearance will start to come back, and I won’t have to work so hard with the makeup and the tips I was taught. But they’ve got me through a really tough time.”