Women in Cancer Support Group

A Surprising Cancer Support Group

Women undergoing cancer treatment learn how to enhance their appearance and their state of mind. Come inside the experience—including how to volunteer or link into services to help someone you know.

Nine women gather around a conference room table in downtown Philadelphia—each participant has a small hand mirror and a cornucopia of new cosmetics: moisturizer, foundation, lip liner, eye shadow, concealer.

“You may have lost your brows, or they may be growing back,” says the group’s facilitator, Rachel Hezlep. “Take your eyebrow pencil and draw in the brows with featherlike strokes.” The women grab their mirrors, widen their eyes, and start penciling.

This is no ordinary makeover session. The women are all undergoing treatment for cancer, and the workshop, called Look Good Feel Better, is designed to boost self-image by teaching women how to deal with appearance-related side effects: tired-looking eyes, thinning hair, brittle nails, dry, patchy skin.

Beauty in Friendship   

Look Good Feel Better is a collaboration of the American Cancer Society, the Personal Care Products Council Foundation, and the Professional Beauty Association and serves more than 50,000 women annually across all 50 states. The onetime class is free to women undergoing treatment for cancer; each receives a kit of new cosmetics along with step-by-step advice from a volunteer facilitator on how to use them.

But the true value of the program comes in the form of camaraderie. At the start of the Philadelphia class, held at Pennsylvania Hospital, the women are quiet; within 15 minutes, they are trading tips (“Putting moisturizer on a damp scalp really helps with itching”), comparing cosmetics (“I think this foundation is more your color, don’t you?”), and lobbing compliments (“Your brows look great!”). They smile into their hand mirrors, lips slicked with bright-garnet gloss.

“For two hours, we don’t talk about medicine. We don’t talk about treatment. We talk about things we can do to make ourselves feel better,” says Jamie McCann, a health initiatives representative for the American Cancer Society. “The idea is to have fun and focus on the makeup and spending time with each other.”

A Balance of Honesty and Support

Rachel coaches the women with frankness, humor, and sensitivity. Waving a mascara wand, she quotes a makeup artist from a Look Good Feel Better video, “If you have one lash or if you have a full set of lashes, rock ’em when you’ve got ’em!”

“My favorite thing is the bonds the ladies form,” she says. “I like it when they learn from each other, talk to each other, joke with each other, and see that they’re not alone in this.”

That desire for company in the world of cancer is what brought Gail Slappy to Look Good Feel Better. A two-time cancer survivor, Gail is still getting used to the “new normal” of her appearance. “Sometimes with short hair I’m very self-conscious,” she says. “My eyebrows have never really been the same. This gives me added tips to enhance my new look.”

Next to Gail, Margaret Ryan wears a gray-and-white scarf knotted around her head; she’s in the midst of chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. She usually wears only lipstick, but by the end of the session, she has a blush called “sunny” blended over both cheeks, and a light plum on her eyelids.

But the real take-home of today’s session can’t be seen in the mirror. “I love to be with women in a group, talking,” Margaret says. “When people say, ‘Stay positive,’ that’s very therapeutic. Just taking time for myself is very good.”

Get Involved

Look Good Feel Better always needs volunteers—licensed beauty professionals who take a four-hour training class, and others who can help with scheduling and organizing. You can find more information on volunteering or taking part in the program by visiting lookgoodfeelbetter.org online or calling (800) 395-LOOK.

And don’t forget to pick up a Pink Ribbon Bagel®—made with cherry chips, dried cherries and cranberries, honey, and brown sugar—while the flavor is available in October. The sweetest part: Participating Panera Bread® bakery-cafes donate a portion of the proceeds from every Pink Ribbon Bagel to breast-cancer charities.