Looking and Feeling Good … Even With Cancer

Engaging the beauty industry in advocacy, Sherry Abbott fights to bring awareness to the needs of cancer patients.

Treating the cancer blues is a key part of treating the disease. Here, the benefits of confidence-boosting.

Changing the cancer blues into pinks, corals, reds and every brilliant colour of the cosmetic rainbow is what Beauty Gives Back is all about.

“Twenty-five years ago, I never would have known that a little bit of blush and lipstick could do as much for my psyche as for my appearance,” says Sherry Abbott, a 56-year-old cancer survivor and the executive director of the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association Foundation, which operates as Beauty Gives Back.

“I would say now that it’s even more important,” she says, explaining how cosmetics and beauty workshops can make a difference in the lives of women coping with the stress, side effects, isolation and lack of control that accompany cancer treatment.

When Abbott was diagnosed with Stage 4 small cell ovarian cancer in 1989 at the age of 30, she was told she couldn’t expect to live more than a few months. Unexpectedly, the treatment worked although it left her devastated, physically and emotionally.

“I’d gone from 135 pounds to 80-something. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a bald person with eyes that popped out of my head and teeth that didn’t fit my mouth because of all the weight I’d lost,” she recalls. “It was very difficult to be hopeful when the image in the mirror looked so ill.” But Abbott had been working as the public relations director for Revlon and understood “the power of cosmetics and beauty to help women look and feel their best.”

She explains, “I did what I could to not look like a sick person.” Then she did what she could to help others in the same situation.

Beauty Gives Back’s goal is raising awareness and support for the cancer blues.

Simply put, says Abbott, “the cancer blues are the emotional distress caused by cancer and its treatment and, unfortunately, it’s an often ignored consequence of the disease that can affect a woman’s ability to fight and thrive through this difficult ordeal.”

One such initiative is the Look Good Feel Better program, which was started 23 years ago. From three workshop locations, it has expanded to 118 locations in cancer care facilities and hospitals across Canada. The free two-hour hands-on workshops are more than an opportunity for women with cancer to learn cosmetic techniques, sample new cosmetics and receive a take-home box of beauty treats. It’s a time and place to share experiences, information and to support one another.

That aspect of the program was so meaningful that another free program was initiated: an online community called FacingCancer.ca – “for everything else you’re going through with cancer.”

The website invites members to share their stories, sorrows and triumphs. It’s a safe and welcoming space where experts at surviving cancer and caregivers can offer support to those who are newly diagnosed. Forums and posts discuss everything from pain and sex to hair loss and peeling skin after radiation. Links to cancer blogs provide a variety of viewpoints, and humour is a main one.

One woman posts comments under the name Bumpyboobs. And questions and polls invite respondents to consider and express their own opinions. FacingCancer.ca also embraces family and friends who support cancer patients and survivors, calling them co-survivors, recognizing the importance of their role.

“We’re working to find more ways to help more people,” says Abbott, considered a hero in the community.

“People who have support have better outcomes,” says cancer survivor and physician Alexandra Ginty. Feeling good about looking better “helps you go outside your comfort zone and meet people to get support.”

She emphasizes, “There is so much connection between mind and body.”

But no matter how the beauty industry’s program evolves and how many innovative ways it finds to support women with cancer and the people who care about them, there’s always going to be the magic that cosmetics can bring to the reflection in the mirror. That’s perhaps why the foundation’s annual fundraiser is called the Mirror Ball.

Sometimes, says Abbott, the effects of cancer and treatment can turn patients into “walking billboards” for the disease; the emotional impacts can be equally devastating. Putting on makeup, being able to smile at yourself in the mirror – “you’re releasing hormones that help you through pain and stress,” says Ginty.

Treating the cancer blues is a key part of treating the disease. Cosmetics and workshops that change how people with cancer see themselves and how others see them can be healing and empowering. And they’re also just plain fun. “First, you treat the cancer,” says Abbott. “Then you treat yourself.”