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While cancer takes aim at a woman's health, cancer treatments exact a toll on her appearance.
Five women who understand that all too well gathered Monday night at the Nebraska Medical Center for an American Cancer Society program called “Look Good . . . Feel Better.”
Two of the women, who have six bouts with cancer between them, led the program, which gives women makeup and wig tips to counter the dry, blotchy skin and hair loss that often come with chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Sharon Wiese, 56, walked into the meeting room after a long day. She had hoped to get another chemotherapy session out of the way Monday, but her blood count didn't allow it, and she had blood transfusions instead. The Omahan also had a blood clot in her leg examined.
It's been a hard fight since Wiese was diagnosed with a rare cancer early this year. She has lost her hair, her eyebrows and most of her eyelashes. She worries about how much time she might have remaining with her four grandchildren and whether she'll have more trips to her parents' cabin along Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada.
“There are times when your mind goes places where no one wants to go,” said Wiese, who wore a reddish-brown wig.
She hates the feeling of isolation and the looks her hairless face receives in public. When Peg Ricketts, one of two program leaders this evening, mentioned the “alien” appearance of a woman going through cancer treatment, Wiese said: “That's me.”
Each of the five women has been through a lot. Ricketts, 65, had cancer in 2000 and again in 2004. She remembers showering while undergoing chemotherapy treatments the first time, and her hair suddenly “just came out in these huge clumps.”
She awakened one of her daughters to help her cut the hair, and the high school senior started to cry. “And then we looked in the mirror and we laughed and we laughed,” Ricketts said. “Because I looked like Beetlejuice.”
Holly Conley, the other instructor, has had four duels with cancer. She has worn a wig for years because her hair grew back curly and stiff as a scouring pad.
“As a female, your hair is — I mean, that's like way on top as far as how you look,” Conley, 51, said.
Ricketts and Conley, both volunteers from Omaha, underwent American Cancer Society training to oversee “Look Good . . . Feel Better” workshops. The participants receive guidance in skin care, tips in using foundation, blush and other makeup to cover blotches, methods to pencil in what appear to be eyelashes and eyebrows, and ways to wear wigs, partial wigs, hats, caps and scarves.
Each participant receives a batch of beauty products provided by various cosmetics companies. The first workshop took place in 1988 in New York. Four years later it was available in all 50 states.
Mariela Aguilar, with long, black hair, came into the room with her husband, Domingo Silva. Aguilar, only 21, used a cane. She recently endured radiation treatments for her third bout with leukemia.
“So you are strong,” Ricketts said to her.
“I try to be,” Aguilar, of Omaha, said.
Conley asked Aguilar if she had ever needed a wig during her leukemia treatments.
“This is a wig,” Aguilar said.
“It is?” Conley said. “It looks great.”
Pushed along in a wheelchair, Bette Boellstorff, 71, came in. Boellstorff, of the Brock, Neb., area, had undergone a stem-cell transplant just five days before as part of her cancer treatment. She wore a mask that covered her nose and mouth and a gray knitted cap made by her daughter, Leslie Reed, who sat with her mother. Reed is a longtime World-Herald reporter.
Boellstorff removed her mask and her cap, revealing a thin crop of short gray hair.
“Ready to be even more beautiful?” Ricketts asked.
“Oh, you bet,” Boellstorff said.
The women went through their red bags, which were stuffed with cosmetics, moisturizers, creams and brushes. With Ricketts' and Conley's guidance, the three practiced applying the cosmetics.
They talked about chemotherapy's harsh side effects as they worked. Ricketts said eyelashes and eyebrows usually are the last to fall out and the first to grow back.
“My skin changed,” Aguilar said of her body's reaction to cancer treatments. “I'm way darker.”
Wiese looked a bit frustrated with her effort to pencil in eyebrows and eyeliner to imitate eyelashes. It's hard, she said, because she tends to shake, and she needs her glasses.
“Just keep working at it, a little at a time,” Ricketts said.
Conley asked Boellstorff if she would serve as the wig model.
Boellstorff tried on wigs, partial wigs and face framers, which are partial hairpieces that are worn with hats.
“I don't look so much like Uncle Chuck now, do I?” she said to her daughter. She tried on a pink beanie, a soft blue hat and a scarf that wrapped around her head.
“You're used to feeling hair on your head,” Boellstorff said. “You feel naked without.”
The session ended after 90 minutes. Ricketts said to the women: “Putting one foot in front of the other, being patient, having hope. . . . It takes a lot of courage. We know.”
Boellstorff put her mask and gray cap back on and Reed pushed the wheelchair out of the room.
Leaning on her cane, Aguilar walked out with her husband.
And Wiese said she had basically gotten what she wanted. She hoped to feel less alone. She wanted to be with others fighting the same fight.
Wiese, an alcohol and drug counselor for parolees, said she has plenty to live for and “a lot of people to help out there.”
As she walked out of the room, Conley said: “Good luck to you.”
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