Chemo for the body, makeup for the soul
Carolyn Wall had always enjoyed makeup, but from the moment she discovered she had cancer, nary a scrap touched her face.
"I kind of let myself be a cancer patient, instead of just being a person with cancer... All of a sudden, I didn't want to put in the effort to look good. It's stupid," she said "But that's the way I felt."
So for the 37-year-old mother of two young children, attending a Look Good, Feel Better workshop was an exercise in getting back on the horse.
She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in November. "It was a huge shock", she said. "I was completely healthy. One morning I woke up with a fast heart rate and uncomfortable breathing - my doctor thought it was pneumonia and it turned out to be lymphoma. It all snow-balled from there."
Wall was immediately booked in for a five-day stay at Auckland Hospital, where she became the first non-Hodgkin lymphoma patient in New Zealand to receive 96 hours of continuous chemotherapy. She would undergo the gruelling treatment every three weeks for the next five months.
The treatments were interspersed with injections to increase her white blood cell count, which imparted crippling bone pain on top of the vomiting, diarrhoea and exhaustion that resulted from the chemo. "It was a balancing act between killing you and killing the cancer", Wall said.
Wall's self-esteem took a hit about halfway through her chemo regimen - she was hairless and her face was red and puffy from steroids. She could not pretend she wasn't sick. "I remember looking in the mirror and just crying and crying," she said. "That's when it really sunk in."
But it was only when her treatments concluded that she attended a LGFB workshop. Six months after receiving her diagnosis, having lost her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, Wall went along to find out "how to look like a normal person again".
"It sounds superficial but it actually does make a difference", she said. "The way you look is part of your identity, and when you don't look like yourself, it's confusing."
Upon arrival, Wall was encouraged to find herself surrounded by women who understood what was going through. For the next two hours, she and the sisterhood she suddenly found herself a part of would be put back together in ways both seen and unseen.
Each had been given a bag full of products suited to their individual colouring and preferences, and were soon having their complexions restored and features defined by an army of volunteers determined to brighten both their smiles and spirits.
Though the workshop helped Wall counteract the effects of treatment on her appearance, its effect went beyond skin deep. "It made me realise I have some control over how I feel by just putting in a little bit of effort", she said.
Wall found herself particularly inspired by tutors who had had cancer themselves. "As supportive as people are, you just don't get the same support level as you do from somebody who had been through chemo".
Such was the impact of this support, Wall has signed up to volunteer at future workshops, joining the alumni of those who have gone pupil to tutor. Not that another round in the makeup chair was exactly an option. Her hair has started to grow back - she's been cancer-free for the past seven weeks.
Look Good, Feel Better has been running workshops in New Zealand for 24 years. It is the only organisation that addresses the effects of cancer treatments on patients' appearances across all types of the disease.
Women undergoing treatment can attend one workshop per year spent in treatment free of charge, valued at $80. This year, LGFB aims to have a workshop available within 30 minutes' drive to anyone wanting to take part. LGFB has also developed programmes for teens and men.
July is LGFB fundraising month. Go to http://www.givealittle.co.nz/org/lookgoodfeelbetter orhttp://www.lookgoodfeelbetter.co.nz for more information.