Cancer patients learn new makeup techniques

Posted: Friday, April 10, 2009

FAIRBANKS - Unwrapping and sorting through a bonanza of beauty products was the first task for five female cancer patients attending the American Cancer Society's "Look Good ... Feel Good" class.

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Sam Harrel / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Sam Harrel / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

As some of them struggled to open packaging materials from the numerous cosmetic items heaped before them, Diane Vivlamore stepped up to help.

"If anyone needs my strong, bionic fingers, I'm here to assist," the licensed cosmetologist joked.

The premise of the ACS class, hosted at the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital Cancer Treatment Center, is that looking good can make a difference as to how a person undergoing cancer treatment feels.

And the supposition became apparent as the five women - four with breast cancer and one with lung cancer - got into the groove of experimenting with makeup.

Each walked into class curious but apprehensive, and each left two hours later with faces glowing, smiles wide and a large, red bag of free cosmetics tucked under their arms.

"I feel beautiful for the first time in a long time," said Martha Chase, as she packed up her new makeup bag.

Salley Rothmeyer was pleased with the eye enhancement techniques she learned.

Billie Williams was happy to learn makeup variations and what type of skin creams were safe to use.

Looking good often takes extra effort for cancer patients. In addition to therapy side effects, many undergoing cancer treatment lose hair and experience dry skin.

Instruction began with facial cleansers and creams, continued with concealers and foundations to cover blemishes and dark skin areas, powders and blush; several ways to enhance eyes with liners, shadows and mascara, and finished with lip liners and lipsticks.

A few of the women looked a bit overwhelmed at the wide assortment of beauty aids until Vivlamore began her spiel, demonstrating, coaching and assisting each of them in basic skin care and makeup application techniques.

Using painting terminology from time to time, like "We're going to prime the face before we paint," Vivlamore taught and joked as she made the rounds.

Halfway through the two-hour session, the women began talking and sharing tips with each other about wigs (four of the five wore them) and remedies for cuticles and nails that are affected by treatment and quite often painful.

"I dip them in vinegar, and they aren't so sore," Rothmeyer said.

By the end of the class, Vivlamore, the volunteer magician responsible for the women's transformations, was as elated as the ladies.

"They go from the cocoon to the butterfly," she said.

In the year she has been teaching the bi-monthly class, Vivlamore said, the women usually approach the class "quietly and rigidly before they open up and blossom."

The owner of Total Image, a Fairbanks hair salon, became interested in helping cancer patients after three of her clients were diagnosed and underwent treatment. She helped them, buzzing off the last of their hair and/or measuring them for wig sizing.

Eventually, she volunteered her professional expertise through the ACS program, was trained and has been doing bi-monthly programs for the past year.

Vivlamore emphasized cleanliness throughout Tuesday's class.

Don't share makeup; don't put fingers in makeup or creams - use a spatula; wash makeup sponges and brushes after use; and keep makeup pencils sharp and clean by wiping with a tissue before use.

And most importantly, Vivlamore's mantra of "Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands," was backed by Hanna Brice Smith, a cancer research nurse and cancer navigator at FMH who assisted at the class.

"When actively in chemotherapy, it's best to use disposable applicators," Smith explained, to avoid the higher risk of infection.

The "Look Good ... Feel Better" class, a collaboration between the ACS, Personal Care Products Council Foundation and the Cosmetology Association, was started nationally in 1989 and has been hosted in Fairbanks for the past year.

Smith said the class is hosted once every two months and more often if there is a demand.

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