At the chemo information session I attended after the port was inserted, I was given a navy blue portfolio folder, its dual pockets stuffed with handy information, including several brochures about losing one’s hair and getting a wig. Three different local businesses offered me $10 off or a free consultation. On the recommendation of my stylist, I had already determined where I would get my wig. She had offered to meet me at the shop where she sent all her cancer patients. Wanting only to look as normal as I could, I was grateful for her help.
Now I wonder: Is there never a time when a woman is allowed to look as bad as she feels?
All the courageous “bald is beautiful” photos showed women with stubble or less, beautifully made up and smiling. An American Cancer Society-sponsored national program called “Look Good, Feel Better” offers two-hour seminars at which women undergoing either chemotherapy or radiation treatments learn to choose a wig or an alternative head covering, care for their nails, and apply makeup more strategically. “Look Good, Feel Better” also has information for teens (face, health, head, and social circles) and for men (mind, body, skin, hair). The latter are clearly auxiliary groups. The main focus is on women; their categories on the Web site include makeup, hair, “before” and “after” photos, and career advice. There are nine steps or subcategories for makeup alone.
The makeup for these sessions is donated by several companies in what may be considered a gesture of self-interested altruism. I know from experience how a woman can get hooked on makeup that improves her appearance, regardless of cost or health considerations. I’d spent a considerable amount of money in the past after trying products in the free-with-purchase bags of sample sizes at department store cosmetic counters. Several of these generous companies have not signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics and continue to market products with ingredients known to be carcinogens—ingredients banned in European nations since 2004. The United States government, in contrast, does not regulate the multibillion-dollar cosmetic industry. Companies can refuse to disclose the ingredients in their formulas, claiming trade secret protection.
I never became one of the 50,000 women who annually attend those well-intentioned seminars, even though at the time of my chemotherapy I knew nothing about the Compact for Safe Cosmetics. I’d been moving away from makeup altogether, a process I began in my forties the second time I went to grad school. I’d loved makeup since I was first allowed to wear it. Working at home and living in a village where I didn’t have to impress anyone, however, I stopped bothering to “put on my face” every morning, instead making do with the face I had. I still wore makeup for special evenings at the theatre or symphony, and I wore it on Sundays to church—“for God,” I told people jokingly. I still felt more professionally “polished” and prettier with makeup, but I was living without it more days than not.
When I started chemo and heard the chatter of the other women in the room, I received another good reason not to wear makeup. One older woman, always well-dressed and made up, with her wig firmly in place, related something said our doctor had said. “You come in here all dolled up; I have no idea how you are.”
That would not be me, I determined. I would go for my appointments without makeup, though I did draw the line at being bald in his presence. I decided not to wear black during treatment, a color I wear well, and he agreed that having cheerful colors was important. But he has never seen me with makeup. Now, five years later, I’ve even stopped wearing it to church.