Facing the side effects

October 22, 2013
The documentary “Mondays at Racine” next airs at 4:15 p.m. Saturday on HBO. (Heidi Gutman/HBO)
The documentary “Mondays at Racine” next airs at 4:15 p.m. Saturday on HBO. (Heidi Gutman/HBO)

When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, she may need more than medical care.

That’s why a new documentary about breast cancer heads to a beauty parlor. “Mondays at Racine,” named for a Long Island salon that pampers breast cancer patients once a month, had its TV premiere on HBO this month. The Oscar-nominated film starts out focused on hair (or rather its loss from chemotherapy) and ends up being an intimate portrait of women facing a disease whose treatments affect elements of their appearance that society connects to feminine beauty: hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, breasts.

The film highlights a common struggle for many women with cancer. Some patients “are comfortable with losing their hair, not wearing makeup,” says Sage Bolte, an oncology counselor at Life with Cancer, a Fairfax support center. Others, faced with the loss of control that cancer can bring, want to “make their face or hair as pretty and normal as possible, so they don’t stand out like a sore thumb, so attention isn’t drawn to them, and to help them feel beautiful even though they’re bald.”

That may mean a visit to one of the free “Look Good Feel Better” workshops offered by the Personal Care Products Council in collaboration with the American Cancer Society and the Professional Beauty Association. The program is offered at cancer centers across the country, including half a dozen in the D.C. area.

Stepping into a “Look Good” session can be daunting. Colleen Williams, 43, was diagnosed in September 2012; she recalls her experience at Georgetown University Hospital: “It is a room full of strangers. You take off your wig. You don’t have any makeup on, you don’t have eyelashes and eyebrows. That can be intimidating.”

Her nervousness disappeared as cosmetologists told her how to put on eyeliner, draw in eyebrows and use hats and wigs or even “wrap a T-shirt up as a scarf and make it look very cute.” Looking good did make her feel better, says Williams, who bonded and laughed with the other workshop participants.

Maimah Karmo of Reston, Va., remembers how unbeautiful she felt after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2006 at age 32. She lost her hair — and her fiance: “He left me after my surgery.” To fight back, she recalls, “I went to chemo glammed up. I wore a wig and painted on my eyebrows and wore 3 ½-inch heels.”

Her experience inspired her to start the Tigerlily Foundation (tigerlilyfoundation.org), which supports young women facing breast cancer. Her group’s “hope bag” program gives out beauty tools such as hats, scarves and makeup. The foundation also provides financial assistance for women who want to try massage or acupuncture.

Along the way, Karmo, author of “Fearless: Awakening to My Life’s Purpose Through Breast Cancer,” has learned beauty isn’t skin-deep. During her treatment, a girlfriend took a photo of her without her wig and said, “You’re so beautiful, you don’t need hair.” At the time, Karmo says, “I was like, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”

Karmo recently looked at the photo again. This time, she began to cry because, “I really was beautiful.” She posted the bald picture to Facebook and reports: “People loved it.”

Details: “Look Good Feel Better” (lookgoodfeelbetter.org) programs run regularly in the D.C. area. The next ones are Monday at 9:30 a.m. at Georgetown University Hospital and 10 a.m. at Washington Hospital Center. To participate, women must be undergoing cancer treatment and must preregister.

Marc Silver has been watching TV since the days when people wrapped aluminum foil around TV antennae to improve reception.
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