Looking good, feeling better

Over the last few months, I have probably received more compliments about my appearance than I have during my entire adult life. I haven’t yet figured out whether I’ve somehow managed to suddenly start looking amazing, or whether I simply look better than people expect of someone who has cancer.

Blue Steel, daaaahling.
Don’t be jealous of my gorgeousness, daaaahling.

I suspect it’s the latter, combined with the fact that I looked absolutely dreadful for the several months during which my first cancer symptoms were keeping me awake half the night; compared to my haggard appearance back at the beginning of the summer, I look like Gisele Bundchen. If it’s the former, however, I have to give thanks to a couple of local experts from whose wisdom I have greatly benefitted–at a very tumultuous moment in my life.

The first is Katrina from House of Colour Cornwall. Along with three of my friends, I visited Katrina this past spring in order to have my colors done. Being stubborn, skeptical, and not really all that interested in fashion or beauty, I felt sure that the assessment would be a waste of my time and money. After pronouncing me an Autumn, Katrina sent me off with three new lipsticks and a little wallet of color swatches to help me weed non-autumn colors from my wardrobe and more efficiently shop for new items to replace the ones I’d just culled.

Some of my autumn hues
Some of my autumn hues

Although it took me a while to get used to the lipsticks–for someone who generally prefers a natural look, they were a bit too obviously makeup–I enthusiastically applied my new color rules, which, literally, brightened up my day. Much of the autumn palette comprises colors I already wore because they are my favorite shades, but there are also other hues that I have always avoided because I thought they didn’t suit me. I have become emboldened when shopping, trying on purples and greens and golds that I used to pass by; on the flip side, I’ve also snubbed quite a few things that I would previously have been tempted to waste my money on. Shopping is more efficient, and, even better, I mix and match components of my previous wardrobe differently, which makes me feel as though I’ve got a whole closet full of new outfits. It’s fun, bright, cheerful, and lighthearted–all very uplifting and positive things at any time, but especially when you are going through a rough patch in life.

The second contribution to my makeover came from Michelle at Sublime Boutique Spa. I consulted with her when I was still awaiting my lymphoma diagnosis, and was suffering horribly from my mysterious itchiness. I didn’t want to slather my sensitive facial skin with the Aveeno cream that I was using elsewhere on my body, so I was seeking some other method of moisturizing. Michelle recommended a quartet of products from Pinks Boutique, a purveyor of “luxury organic beauty products.”  I was initially nervous because of their price but decided to take the plunge because I’ve spent my whole adult life buying more economical products and feeling unsatisfied with my complexion; I figured it couldn’t hurt to experiment with something upscale to see if it made a difference.

Five months later, I’m still working my way through my first Pinks investments, and I couldn’t be happier. My skin looks and feels better than it has in years, and I am not self-conscious about going out in public makeup-free. I started receiving compliments very shortly after beginning my new skin care regime, and have frequently heard the words “radiant” and “glowing” applied to my appearance–which, considering that this has been a fairly tough time, just goes to show the benefit of a good skincare routine.

To an outsider, it may seem wasteful and pointless to dwell on externals like these during a major crisis, but I have found it to be very diverting and empowering and just generally pleasant, during a period when pleasant things can be few and far between. I recently ran across a blog in which the author, Sali Hughes, shared similar sentiments on the relevance of aesthetics; she describes how a friend adhered to her beauty regimen throughout chemotherapy because it allowed her to maintain her self–not just her daily routine and her ideal style, but also the physical appearance of which her disease threatened to rob her. Hughes writes, “During chemo, she drew on brows not because she was remotely ashamed of her cancer, but because she felt entitled not to be defined by it, and to enjoy the same level of privacy. These rituals were vital coping mechanisms for her. She wasn’t vain, shallow or in denial. She was just unembarrassed that beauty – along with literature, music and a hundred other things – was part of who she was, and determined that cancer would not erode both her character and her body.” 

I think this passage helps explain the benefit of  Look Good Feel Better, an international charity that aims to improve the lives of cancer patients by providing them a means to feel good about themselves. At LGFB clinics, cancer patients are given a complimentary bag of cosmetic products and then receive a tutorial on techniques for skin care and makeup application; the ultimate goal is to ensure that each woman feels able to take charge of, and feel confident in, her own appearance, regardless of how cancer may be affecting her.

Contents of my Look Good Feel Better bag
Contents of a typical Look Good Feel Better bag

My nurse signed me up for a session, which I felt a little reluctant to attend because I was very hazy on what it would entail; mostly I was worried I would have to talk to strangers, which, as we all know, is not my favorite pastime. It was, however, a very pleasant afternoon, and I’m so glad I didn’t talk myself out of going. For one thing, I did actually learn some useful information about makeup. Did you know, for example, that it is easier to sharpen an eyeliner pencil if you stick it in the freezer for about 20 minutes beforehand? Or that makeup will last longer if you keep it in the packaging in which you bought it? Or that you can cover your lips with foundation if you’d like to make your lipstick adhere better?

Literature from my LGFB day
Literature from my LGFB day

Anti-social though I may be, I have to admit that I felt, and enjoyed, the sense of team spirit that pervaded the room–a silent acknowledgement that all the ladies there were bound together by a shared life challenge. I never heard anyone discuss cancer outright, but of course we all knew that we were in the same boat, and I think that it engendered a feeling of sisterhood and support. As we all tried new makeup techniques, or acted as guinea pigs on which the session leaders demonstrated application styles, there were lots of compliments and words of encouragement. Everyone helped each other and had nothing but positive comments. The room was full of goodwill, and laughter, and joie de vivre; people were having fun, and that’s not always an easy thing when you’re undergoing treatment for cancer.

At the end of the session, I felt happier and more relaxed, simply from spending a couple of hours thinking about something other than cancer and chemotherapy. A few months ago, I would have said that a two-hour makeup tutorial was a frivolous way to spend an afternoon; now, I recognize that frivolity is all in the eye of the beholder, and sometimes you have to use whatever tool you can find to help you achieve happiness and a feeling of strength.

Post-makeover. I'm not sure the auburn-ish eyebrow pencil was quite the right shade for me...
Post-makeover. I’m unlikely to ever wear this much makeup in real life, but it was still fun to put on.

This is the logic behind the sartorial routine I developed for chemo day. When I was preparing for my first treatment, I decided that I needed a ritual for my fortnightly visit to the hospital–something that would express my feeling of defiance while also cheering me up and making the day more bearable. I decided on two simple rules: First, I would always wear a dress or skirt; and, second, birds would always feature somewhere in my outfit.

En route to chemo
En route to chemo, wearing a fab turban given to me by fellow vintage-lover Regan Early

Of all the things to be worrying about on the eve of pumping my body full of toxic chemicals, it seems a bit ridiculous to spend so much time and effort contemplating fashion, doesn’t it? And yet, every minute that I spend staring into my closet and picking out the perfect jewelry and ironing my clothes, I’m not fretting about cancer. Or feeling like a victim. Or thinking, “Tomorrow is going to be so awful.” Instead, I’m reveling in the opportunity to wear new shoes or whip out a hat I haven’t worn in five years or sashay around town in a flamingo-print dress. I am laughing in the face of lymphoma.

When I was standing in line before one of my first appointments, the woman behind me complimented my multicolored hat and approvingly said, “It’s good to wear something to brighten this place up.” I was so pleased that someone else recognized, and appreciated, what I was doing. It’s not like I see myself as some sort of hero–that would be the nurses and doctors who patiently tend to a horde of patients each day. I just wanted to take a cue from the folks who are willing to go out on a limb and be the only ones to wear a costume to work on Halloween, or commit to the craziest Christmas sweater during the holidays, or dress up like their favorite character for a movie premier–the sort of people who fully and un-self-consciously throw themselves into crafting a certain look simply because it makes them happy. I’ve always admired those people, and they’ve always brought a smile to my face–but I’ve never really been brave enough to be one myself. I figured this was as good a time as any to give it a go, and I’m pleased with the outcome. The receptionists have referred to me as “the one who always looks so glamorous,” which is great for my self-esteem; even better, I see people smiling when they see me, and sometimes I end up chatting with fellow patients about where I got my shoes or how best to pair a hat with an outfit–and for a few minutes, none of us is thinking about cancer.

For some reason, all the beauty stuff reminds me of this cartoon:

Source: http://www.lunarbaboon.com/comics/powers.html

There are all sorts of things that can make even the worst day better–listening to a great song, reading your favorite poem, giving change to a busker out on the street, wearing your brightest scarf. If it lifts your spirits, then it’s worth doing; if it also benefits someone else in some way, all the better. Even the littlest things can quickly add up and foster a sense of happiness, and that happiness invariably spreads from one person to the next. This is true not just in the best of times, but also in the worst–maybe even especially in the worst, when it’s otherwise all too easy to sink down under the weight of worry and fear and a feeling of helplessness. You may not be able to control the larger situation, but you can tackle little bite-sized portions, and that modicum of control may just be enough to give you the hope and energy you need to keep on going. Who knows what a different shade of lipstick and a dashing new hat can help you achieve?

In all seriousness, and to return to the theme with which I began this post, I have no idea what it is that people are seeing when they compliment my appearance. It’s true that the Pinks products and Autumn colors are great, but they can’t be that great. If there really is something different about me, it’s the fact that I feel much less inclined to waste time worrying about unimportant stuff; a cancer diagnosis does have a tendency to put things into perspective. There were hundreds of little niggling thoughts that used to plague me on a daily basis, but now I just shrug them off. I refuse to waste time and energy on anything other than healing and getting as much out of life as possible.

I wouldn’t be surprised if my new, more carefree attitude has removed some furrows from my brow and added a sparkle to my eye. I’m just ashamed that it’s taken such a drastic and traumatic life event to help me prioritize better. All the same, I’m pleased to have the opportunity for a reset–from the cellular level on up! I feel a bit like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning…only with more makeup and some very fashionable bird-themed accessories.