Fighting Cancer's Effects One Makeover at a Time

For cancer patients, looking good can be an important part of healing.

ByABC News
January 8, 2013, 5:18 PM

Jan. 9, 2013— -- When Nancy Lumb was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was sure she could beat it. She had found the small lump herself, and the cancer had not spread; her doctors were optimistic.

But as calm as Lumb was just after her diagnosis, what really knocked her off her feet was something she never expected to feel so upset about: losing her hair.

"I never cried when I was diagnosed, but I cried when I shaved my head," Lumb, 45, told ABC News.

Cancer patient Dawn Charles understands that all too well. Charles, a 43-year-old British transplant who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., has battled breast cancer too. She endured a mastectomy and four months of chemotherapy. Losing her hair, she said, makes you "suddenly feel like you look sick."

"You almost can't look at yourself," she added. "You felt like an alien."

For these women and other cancer patients, treating the appearance side effects of cancer can be as important as managing the medical side effects.

It may sound superficial, but for those who have faced grueling months of chemotherapy and radiation, looking better can be an important part of healing.

"If you look sick, people treat you like you're sick and you buy into it," Lumb said.

Both Lumb and Charles found their way to a program called Look Good Feel Better. The organization is a collaboration of the American Cancer Society, Personal Care Products Council, and the National Cosmetology Association. Look Good Feel Better is designed to do just that: help cancer patients look good, and consequently -- feel better.

"It really kind of changes and transforms the way they think about their treatment and the disease itself," said the program's executive director, Louanne Roark.

The group's sessions are free and offered in 3,000 locations around the United States, and in 24 countries. They help nearly 110,000 women a year worldwide, about half of those in the United States.

It's not just women cancer patients who are concerned about their appearance; the organization also offers advice for men and teens.

Cancer patients attend a group session to learn how to compensate for the sudden changes in how they look.

"Side effects include a lot of significant skin changes, dryness, redness, itching, blotchiness, discoloration, and loss of hair that includes brows and lashes," Roark said.

"We give them little tips, such as sleep in a little turban when you lose your hair because it's cold; it's really the full gambit of information," she added.

The hands-on workshops also include lessons in skin care and make-up, such as techniques for drawing on a realistic looking eyebrow. And there's advice on how to use wigs, scarves and hats to make up for the hair loss.

The cosmetic industry has been a huge supporter of the program. One long-time backer has been Elizabeth Arden, which has been working with Look Good Feel Better for more than two decades. The company's vice president of global public relations, Francine Gingras, said "by providing women with confidence and self esteem, they can conquer anything."

Charles, who didn't learn about the program until late in her treatment, said the session gave her a big boost and helped her understand she wasn't the only one going through this.

"You sit in a room where no one has hair and eyebrows," she said, and "then you can laugh about it."

For Lumb, the session helped her feel in charge again.

"When you can't control what's happening on the inside of your body, for me to be able to control what's happening on the outside of my body, gave me a lot of comfort," she said.

A cancer diagnosis can suddenly throw life into turmoil. This program, said Elizabeth Arden's Gingras, helps cancer patients "try to stay as normal as possible during a very abnormal time in their life."

For Lumb it helped her concentrate on what was truly important.

"I was able to focus on being a survivor, and moving forward with the disease," she said.