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Look Good classes for GBMC cancer patients a 'makeover for the spirit'

Ellen Briggs recently participated in the Look Good Feel Better program hosted by GBMC. The class teaches women how to enhance their appearance to counter the physical side effects of cancer treatments.
Ellen Briggs recently participated in the Look Good Feel Better program hosted by GBMC. The class teaches women how to enhance their appearance to counter the physical side effects of cancer treatments. (Steve Ruark, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

When Ellen Briggs took the Look Good Feel Better class at Greater Baltimore Medical Center earlier in the month, the class hadn't changed much from the first time she took it, back in 2002 but she did think the facial makeup was a lighter weight and that the other makeup had improved as well.

Still, for the 49-year-old cancer patient the effect was the same: "It gave me a boost. I felt better afterwards because I had some solutions" to enhancing her appearance to counter the physical side effects from cancer treatments.

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The American Cancer Society sponsors the Look Good classes, a nationwide program for women that began 25 years ago. The free class is a one-time, two-hour long workshop, the first hour devoted to skin changes, the second hour to hair loss.

GBMC hosts the class twice monthly. Two other Towson-located facilities offer it monthly: University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center and Hopewell Cancer Support.

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Briggs, of Towson, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002. After a seven-year hiatus, in 2009 she was diagnosed with cancer involving the brain, bones and liver. She has been undergoing chemotherapy since then, and it has left her with the hair loss and dry skin typical of the situation.

"My skin is not happy but you do what you can," said Briggs, who is married to Todd Briggs and the mother of Samantha, a sophomore at Friends School. She is also the owner of a home-based business, Ellen Briggs Photography, and works part-time for Irvin Simon, a school photography company.

The recent Look Good class Briggs took had two other participants, a black woman about Briggs' age and an older white woman.

"It was a good mix," Briggs said. "The instructor had to figure out what looks good on a variety of skin types and ages."

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Carol Stover has been teaching the GBMC Look Good class for the past seven years. A freelance makeup artist who conducts seminars and workshops and does makeup for TV, film and video productions, Stover said it is "magical to be with these women."

Stover went through a cancer scare herself when she was misdiagnosed, as it turned out, with ovarian cancer. "It was such a journey to go through, thinking I had cancer," she said. "I said to myself, 'I'm supposed to learn something from this.'"

She did. As soon as she heard about the Look Good class at GBMC, she got American Cancer Society-training and volunteered. "I thought, 'I need to do this. It's payback time,'" says Stover.

Stover says that whether the treatment is chemotherapy or radiation or a combination of both, the effect on skin and hair is the same.

Almost all patients experience skin changes that include darkening of the skin tone, dark circles under or around the eyes, light and dark blotchy patches and/or dryness. Hair loss is total — head, eyebrows, eyelashes.

"There's a dramatic change in their appearances, and it happens quickly," said Stover. She said classes range from two to six participants although three to four is more typical.

Participants arrive with varying attitudes, from those who are obviously not feeling well physically and emotionally to others who are determined to get the most out of the class. "They rip off their wigs and say, 'Let's go.' They've got incredible spirit," Stover said.

Each participant gets a kit of full-sized products thanks to the Personal Care Products Council Foundation. Almost every major cosmetic company donates the products.

"These are their regular products, and not formulated differently for cancer patients," said Stover, who works with each participant to develop a personal skin and makeup plan.

For the second half of the Look Good class, on hair loss, a volunteer talks about wigs — how to select and care for them. Other options for baldness, from scarves to baseball caps, are discussed.

According to Jen Burdette, of the American Cancer Society, the Look Good Feel Better classes are open to any woman who is getting ready to start cancer treatment, in active treatment or recently finished treatment.

"They are highly popular," Burdette said, and not only for makeup and wig tips.

The classes are a supportive environment. Women have been known to exchange telephone numbers with each other in class. Women who have to go to jobs while undergoing treatment learn skills to make themselves feel better when they're out in public.

The class, Burdette said, "is more than applying makeup. It goes to feelings of self-esteem. We call it 'Makeover for the spirit.'"

And perhaps for spouses, too. Relatives are not allowed in the class. Burdette recalled one man who brought his wife to the class, then sat in the waiting area for her. When he saw her emerge from the class wearing makeup, he burst into tears.

"You gave me my wife back," he told the volunteers. "She looks like my wife again."

Look Good Feel Better classes are held at more than 30 locations throughout Maryland. Upcoming classes in the Towson area are: GBMC, Nov. 3 and Nov. 17; University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center, Nov. 10; and Hopewell Cancer Support, Dec. 8. For more information, call 1-800-395-LOOK or go to the website lookgoodfeelbetter.org.

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