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Beauty Program Gives Bronx Cancer Patients a Self-Esteem Boost

THE BRONX — When Myrna Perez found out she had breast cancer in 2007 and had to start chemotherapy, she was worried about more than just what effect the disease and its treatment would have on her health.

“My biggest problem was not so much being diagnosed but when I lost my hair,” said the 53-year-old nurse, who works in the oncology department at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx. “In the beginning, you’re thinking you look horrible, you feel bad.”

But Perez found some solace when she signed up for the hospital’s Look Good…Feel Better class—part of a nationwide program that gives skin care lessons and teaches beauty techniques to cancer patients in an effort to help them cope with some of the appearance-related effects of their treatment.

St. Barnabas Hospital has been offering the workshops for about five years, according to Yomaira Payamps, who works in the oncology wing and helps coordinate the classes, which take place every few months at the hospital’s Infusion Center on Third Avenue and E. 183rd Street.  

Five women attended a class on Monday, which covered topics like basic skin, nail and wig care, as well as techniques for applying makeup after eyebrow and eyelash loss. A certified makeup artist led the session, and each woman was given a gift bag of beauty supplies and skin care products to take home, donated by a number of cosmetics companies that work with the program.

“From the first session, you can see the change,” Payamps said. “They leave here feeling confident.”

Eileen Rhodes, 41, a patient at St. Barnabas, said she heard about the program while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, which she just finished two weeks ago.

“I just came to see what it was all about,” she said, adding that she's already experienced the physical impact of the chemotherapy.

“My face has broken out like I’ve never had it break out. [Your skin] gets darker on your hands and feet,” she said.

In addition to hair loss, chemotherapy can cause a patients' skin to dry out and their complexion to change in certain spots, according to Payamps.

During Monday’s class, Marcella Crawford, a makeup artist who works with the American Cancer Society, went over proper skin care and the importance of using moisturizer regularly. The women, gathered around a table strewn with beauty supplies, dabbed and primped before small handheld mirrors as Crawford instructed them on the best way to use concealer and blush.

“In case you lose your brows, we’re going to show you how to re-create your eyebrows,” Crawford told the group, demonstrating with a makeup pencil how to locate where the eyebrow’s natural arch would fall above the eye.

Ann-Marie Morrison, 48, said she’d never given much thought to wearing makeup until chemotherapy to treat her ovarian cancer caused her to lose her hair and eyebrows, which have just begun to grow back. She said she was hoping the class could teach her some tricks to spice up her normal beauty routine.

“[Just] to try and brighten myself up a little bit,” she said.

The group also discussed how to properly wash and care for wigs and how to fashion alternative head coverings — using scarves or a kerchief made from an old T-shirt — on the days when a wig might get too hot.

Founded in 1988, Look Good…Feel Better is run by a partnership between the Personal Care Products Council Foundation, the American Cancer Society and the Professional Beauty Association/National Cosmetology Association. It began with workshops at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and Georgetown University’s Lombardi Cancer Center in Washington, D.C., and is now offered at more than 3,000 locations across the country.

Perez, who will celebrate her fifth year in remission from breast cancer this October, says the program helped her most because it connected her with other women who were going through the same ordeal. Still on the job as a registered nurse at St. Barnabas, she says she now encourages her cancer patients to check out a class.

“All of my patients get recommended,” she said. “They come in feeling kind of down, but you can see the difference when they’re on the way out.”