Front page of the paper, Look Good..Feel Better
By Leslie Modica
DOVER — Heather Houde-Parker was prepared to lose her hair when she started her first round of chemotherapy in 2007.
Along the way, she cut her once-long hair shorter and shorter to prepare. Just days after Easter Sunday, the first time she noticed large chunks of hair falling out of her scalp, she kept a promise she had made to herself when she first started the treatment months earlier. She shaved her head.
It wasn’t easy, but there was a sense of liberation about it, Houde-Parker said. She was prepared.
But what she wasn’t prepared for were all the other physical side effects of the treatment that came with it — sunken eyes, dry skin, and especially the loss of her eyelashes and eyebrows.
“I didn’t realize the extent of it,” the now 30-year-old Houde-Parker said.
She isn’t alone. As millions of women grapple with first the diagnosis of cancer and then the side effects of treatment, the issue of a changing physical appearance often remains on the sidelines.
It wasn’t until local aesthetician Joanne McDonough was contacted by a “local television personality” to use makeup to help hide the effects of chemotherapy that she was aware of the need for many women to find a way to deal with their changing appearances.
Five years later, she is running the Look Good … Feel Better program at the Seacoast Cancer Center at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital. The free program, part of a larger program run by the American Cancer Society, teaches cancer patients cosmetic techniques to help them cope with appearance-related side effects from chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“If you feel good, if you feel strong and confident, if you can look someone in the face and be upbeat, your mood is upbeat and not depressed,” McDonough said. “Maybe a little bit of makeup will make you go outside the house. That is going to contribute to their healing. Reaching out and being with other people is a healing experience.”
McDonough said she has witnessed first-hand the effects confidence can have on a woman’s life. While running the Look Good … Feel Better program, McDonough said she helped one woman who, divorced, was going through her treatment alone.
After going through the program, she began caring for herself in a way she hadn’t before.
“Then she started dating,” McDonough said. “It gave her enough confidence to say ‘I can do this.'”
After Houde-Parker, who is 30 and a single mother, was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer in 2007, she began a rigorous treatment schedule that included 15 rounds of chemotherapy before undergoing surgery that same year. Shortly after, she learned about the Look Good … Feel Better program through Seacoast Cancer Center and attended a session and learned a technique she now uses daily — how to draw on realistic eyebrows.
Although she was never fond of wigs and embraced her new bald head, the cosmetologist never lapsed from her daily makeup routine, even when she knew she was not going to leave the house.
“I had to get up every day and do my makeup after I showered,” Houde-Parker said. “I felt better. It was important for me so I didn’t feel like a cancer patient.”
And it was also important for her that other people didn’t see her as a cancer patient either.
“I didn’t want them to feel bad for me,” she said. “It was easier for me to put on my face, so to speak.”
Jean Elson, a senior lecturer of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, said there is a strong need for many women to maintain a connection to their femininity during medical treatment.
In 2004 Elson published a book called “Am I still a woman?” about the connection between hysterectomy and gender identity. In her research, Elson interviewed 44 women to examine the psychological effects of the procedure on women.
“What I found is it was very overwhelmingly important to them to maintain their identity as a woman despite the fact that they had lost these organs so strongly associated with womanhood,” Elson said.
Elson added that in many instances, women reported purposefully wearing feminine nightgowns or fixing their hair while in the hospital to prove that they were still feminine. Often, she said, the women said those things helped increase self-esteem and maintain their gender identity through the process.
“Something similar is probably going on in this program,” Elson said. “There is a profound sense of loss, not for everyone, but I think that if that was part of the way they could recapture their feeling about themselves, that is very helpful.”
Elson said there are critics of such programs, though. Although she said she does not necessarily agree with the assessments, some social scientists have said programs that focus on appearance and cosmetics take the focus off more important concerns about the medical problems themselves, and even reorient women away from valid concerns about mortality. The other common critique, Elson said, is that the focus on appearance is really a way to make others feel better who are not comfortable with confronting what the patient is going through.
While Elson may not entirely agree with those critiques, she said it is important to make sure these programs are directed at helping patients themselves, inwardly, and that the patients are not learning about cosmetic techniques to make others feel better or more comfortable seeing them in public.
McDonough said she has heard such critiques, but the Look Good … Feel Better program is a benefit directed toward the patient and nobody else.
And there are other benefits, she said.
Included in the two-hour program is a free makeup bag that includes cosmetics approved by the American Cancer Society for patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. Because those treatments often leave skin dry, cracked and sensitive, the makeup is tested to be gentle on the extra-sensitive skin. The makeup and lotions also address the fact that skin is highly photosensitive to sunlight after treatment, McDonough added.
And then there’s the social aspect.
“It’s a bonding experience,” said Ginny Witkin, the breast health program coordinator at Lakes Regional General Hospital, which also hosts a Look Good … Feel Better program. “I think whenever you can get a mix of support from people who have things in common, it doesn’t matter how you do it. This is just more or less a vehicle to help promote that. People get a few laughs out of it, and it winds up creating a positive energy with people.”
McDonough added that the women often exchange contact information, and sometimes even see each other in the waiting room of doctor appointments.
“It helps them through it,” she said.
McDonough said she hosts the sessions with Lena Hartford, who teaches about hair and nails, the first Wednesday of each month at the Seacoast Cancer Center.
Several other programs are available in the state, however, many are hosted on as as-needed basis.
To find a program in your area, visit www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org or call 1-800-395-LOOK.
John Huff/Staff photographer Heather Houde-Parker, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, demonstrates techniques she learned in the Look Good … Feel Better program, which teaches cancer patients how to use cosmetic techniques to deal with the side effects of their treatments.