The Magic of a Makeover: Looking Good Helps Cancer Patients Feel Better

It started out simply: In the late ’80s, a doctor asked Ed Kavanaugh, a leader in the cosmetics industry, if he could facilitate a makeover for a young woman undergoing chemotherapy. She’d become so depressed by the physical side effects of her treatment that she wouldn’t leave her room. After a visit from a makeup artist, the young cancer patient seemed to have a renewed energy, approaching her treatment with vigor. Kavanaugh started to think bigger.

He went to his colleagues at the Personal Care Products Council (the cosmetic industry’s trade association) and pitched a free program designed to help women cope with the appearance-related side effects of chemotherapy. The idea was to give women beauty tips as a way to increase self-esteem and learn to approach their treatment with confidence. And so Look Good…Feel Better was born. The first two programs launched at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington, D.C. Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, Look Good…Feel Better workshops can be found in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and more than a dozen countries around the world.

How It Works
Each Look Good…Feel Better workshop is a two-hour, hands-on tutorial that includes a 12-step skin care and makeup application lesson, nail-care techniques, and a demonstration on dealing with hair loss using wigs, scarves and hats. The National Cosmetology Association, the professional organization of makeup artists, hairstylists, wig experts, estheticians and nail technicians, helps to recruit many of the Look Good…Feel Better workshop leaders. Other volunteers come to the program through the American Cancer Society (ACS), which manages volunteer training and serves as the primary source of information to the public. Workshops are given at care clinics, hospitals, local ACS offices and community centers.

The Personal Care Products Council provides financial support, makeup and other materials. Cosmetic and personal-care companies like Estee Lauder, Chanel, L’Oreal, Mary Kay, Avon, Revlon, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Physicians Formula (among many other Council member companies) donate over one million individual products (all together valued at $10 million) and raise more than $2 million in cash for Look Good…Feel Better every year. Thanks to the product donations, each woman who participates in a Look Good…Feel Better workshop is given a small tote bag filled with makeup and skin-care products based on her skin tone. There’s also a step-by-step instruction booklet to reference after the session. The program has since expanded to help men and teens as well.

To get more information on any of the Look Good…Feel Better programs, call 1-800-395-LOOK, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week or go their website.

Feeling Beautiful Through Breast Cancer
“Cancer is really difficult because it robs you of your femininity,” says 40-year-old Nancy Lumb, a breast cancer survivor. “Look Good…Feel Better provides you with tools to keep you as close to your old self as possible.”

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, Nancy was touring a chemotherapy room when she saw a Look Good…Feel Better pamphlet. She asked the nurse about it, looked it up online and signed up for a session with a local Look Good…Feel Better group. She hadn’t even started chemo yet. “They were really good at telling me what was going to happen and what to expect in terms of my appearance,” she recalls.

She learned how to take care of her skin as it got drier due to chemotherapy, how to put on fake eyelashes and how to recreate eyebrows. Nancy was especially thankful for the section on hair loss. She didn’t cry when she was diagnosed, or when she told her mother and her husband. But when she began to lose her hair, the floodgates opened. She was impressed with how comprehensive the tips were about dealing with baldness. “Not just wigs, but hats, bandanas and scarves!” she says.

One of the best benefits of the program, says Nancy, was the opportunity to meet other women battling cancer. She was able to tap into a support system to lean on through treatment and build friendships with women she’s still in touch with.

After a lumpectomy, five rounds of chemotherapy and 33 doses of radiation, Nancy has been cancer free for a year. She encourages every woman with cancer to get involved with Look Good…Feel Better. “They teach you what you can do to still appear as a healthy, vibrant person, even if your skin looks sickly,” she says, adding with a laugh, “Not to downplay the rest of it, but you also get all this wonderful free makeup.”

Thanks for the Support and the Eyebrow Tips
Michelle Kostas was 30 years old when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May 2008. Now 31, Michelle has been done with treatment since November 2008 and says, “I’m patiently waiting for my hair to grow.”

She went to her first Look Good…Feel Better session shortly after beginning chemotherapy. “I was happy that I went when I did because I got to meet other women,” she says. “Doctors and nurses can sort of tell you what’s going to happen, but nobody really knows what you’re going through except these women. It’s like a sisterhood.” After the class, she found emotional support by emailing and talking with the people she’d met.

The timing was good in other ways, too. Michelle wasn’t sure how she was going to handle losing her hair and eyebrows. “I didn’t want to have those fake, painted-on eyebrows and they teach you these techniques that make everything look more natural,” she shares.

She learned to avoid professional manicures and pedicures during treatment because of the risk of infections. Instead, she learned to moisturize her cuticles, gently push them back and then paint her nails with her favorite color. “I would definitely recommend the class to any woman at any age. It’s really beneficial,” she says. “It gives you confidence, makes you feel better, and you can build friendships with other women being treated for cancer.”

The program had such a positive effect on Michelle that she just finished the training class needed to be certified as a Look Good…Feel Better volunteer. “It’s definitely something I want to do to continue to help other women,” she says.

The Makeover Man
Rick DiCecca will never forget the first time he went to a Look Good…Feel Better session. A few coworkers had asked him to bring his expertise as a makeup artist to some women in need at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He agreed to go along.

What happened there, he says, changed his life.

A woman arrived from a chemotherapy session with her IV still attached. Clearly, she was struggling with a serious illness. But in just two hours, that woman was transformed from a cancer patient back into a gorgeous woman. Ten years later, DiCecca continues to donate his time and skills to helping women triumph over cancer with their outer—and inner—beauty intact.

Currently the Global Makeup Stylist for Estée Lauder, DiCecca has been working in the beauty business for 20 years. He’s launched makeup lines for Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s and has worked with supermodels all over the world.

Good or bad, says DiCecca, his experiences have taught him that value is placed on how we look. When you are undergoing cancer treatment, he says, “You venture out in the world minus the things you are often judged on.” His philosophy is that every woman can be beautiful, and makeup is a way to bring out a woman’s best outward appearance so that her true self can shine through. His goal in teaching beauty and skincare techniques at Look Good…Feel Better is to help women replace what is taken from them by chemo.

DiCecca believes that one of the most valuable parts of the Look Good…Feel Better program is the chance it gives women to get together and discuss their cancers and treatments. “There’s a camaraderie and a sisterhood that develops,” he says. “Women take their headscarves off, they take their wigs off, and two hours later you have these beautiful women.” DiCecca benefits from the program, too. “I get a sense of a job well done, and of really helping somebody who is in dire need.”

Tips from a Beauty Expert
“Chemo changes the way your skin looks and feels,” says DiCecca. Here are his top three tips for dealing with those changes during treatment:

The problem: Extreme dryness
The solution: Apply a hydrating serum, with a good moisturizer on top of that

The problem: Redness
The solution: Use a yellow or green color-correcting foundation (depending on your skin tone)

The problem: Losing eyelashes
The solution: Use a dark liner as close to the edge of the lid as possible, and smudge it out

Originally published on


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