For cancer patients undergoing treatment, the change in their appearance can be so devastating they stop going outside. But a makeover program at the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park is helping women with cancer change the way they feel by changing the way they look.
“Some of the women are truly like butterflies,” said Selma Robinton, co-chairperson of LIJ’s “Look Good…Feel Better” program. “They come in with major hair loss and an obvious shyness and by the time they leave, they have a whole new personality.”
Robinton runs the makeover sessions with her friend of 50 years, Harriette Pine. When several of Robinton’s friends were diagnosed with breast cancer, she decided to do something that would make a difference. She heard about the program, which began in 1987 at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, and started the LIJ chapter. “I’m a very sympathetic person,” Robinton said about her involvement in the program. “I feel that I’m doing something worthwhile.”
By the participants’ reactions, it’s evident that the program is succeeding. One woman, who was diagnosed with breast cancer the day after her 33rd birthday, had started to lose her eyelashes and eyebrows. She used the beauty tips to make it appear as though she still had them. But what was more important to Kathleen Nelson was the emotional support she got. “Throughout my experience with cancer, I had to give my blood, I had to give my veins, I had to give myself,” she said. “This class gave back to me and it was great.”
For many of the women, just being with others who are having similar experiences makes them feel better. “It’s a place where women can communicate with others going through the same situation,” said Carolee Cohen Lipman of Little Neck, a recent participant in the program. “I didn’t opt for any form of therapy while going through my treatments, but this one day was truly therapeutic.”
The sessions are sponsored by LIJ, the American Cancer Society, the National Cosmetology Association and the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association. On the second Monday of every month, cosmetologists give the female cancer patients from LIJ free beauty lessons and a makeup kit to help them with the unique skin and hair problems they face.
Developing sensitive skin during chemotherapy and radiation are common. During the two-hour program, women are taught to use warm water rather than hot when washing their faces. They are also taught how to conceal discoloration spots, apply brows with a pencil and how to use mascara to give thinning eyelashes a thicker look.
“The transformation in the women is unbelievable,” Robinton said, “If you could see it, you would know why I’m so dedicated to the program.”
The cosmetologists also give the women hair care lessons. Milder shampoos, for example, can minimize hair loss. If women have already lost their hair, they are taught how to choose a wig. They learn that synthetic wigs are easier to maintain and dry faster than wigs made of human hair. On the other hand, wigs made of human hair feel more natural and can be re-dyed or permed.
When the women leave the session they look completely different than when they arrived. Lips are brighter, lashes are thicker, and cheeks are rosier. The women’s emotional transformation is equally striking. “They walk in down, depressed, unhappy,” Robinton said. “They leave here laughing and kidding. It is unbelievable.”
Helping people feel better is nothing new to Robinton, who has been a hospital volunteer for 42 years. Besides running “Look Good…Feel Better” she also volunteers in the surgical waiting room to comfort family members of patients. This is in addition to helping in the gift shop and attending monthly board meetings at the hospital.
But Robinton does not like people making a fuss over her or the work she is doing. “Sometimes I feel emotionally exhausted,” she said when asked about the time she spends at the hospital. “But I feel that I want to give back.”
Through the “Look Good…Feel Better” program she has been giving to hundreds of women, helping them feel better by connecting with others. “These women enter the group as strangers,” she said. “They leave as friends.”
To make a reservation, or to request more information about the program, call 718- 470-7093. Information is also available at www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org.