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Make me feel beautiful again

Updated on June 30, 2016

Sarah Curtis stares at her reflection, concentration clearly etched on her face.

With a steady hand she applies a line of black pencil to first one eyebrow, then the other. As she leans back to study her handiwork, a smile spreads across her face. "Oh. My. God!" she shrieks. "It worked!"

There's no doubt she looks stunning. But for Sarah, this is about more than just a bit of make-up. The 27 year old from Orsett, Essex, is enduring aggressive chemotherapy to blitz the cancer that is ravaging her body. Like many cancer patients, the treatment has wreaked havoc on Sarah's appearance. Devoid of eyebrows, eyelashes and her long brown hair, she felt robbed of her femininity.

But today, as part of a special pamper session for female cancer patients organised with the help of volunteer beauticians, she feels like a woman again. "It really has given me a huge confidence boost," she says. "I look like my old self."

Alongside her are seven other cancer sufferers at various stages of treatment. They're attending a make-up workshop at Maggie's, a cancer patient drop-in centre in the grounds of Charing Cross Hospital in west London.

The beauty workshops are run by a charity called Look Good... Feel Better, which was set up by the Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA) more than 15 years ago. Now the charity runs 950 of these sessions around the UK each year, helping over 9,000 women learn how to use make-up to fade out the damage cancer, and its treatment, has done.

Some might think it sounds fickle - after all, shouldn't these women just concentrate on fighting for their lives?

But, in fact, helping them look good actually gives them extra ammunition to battle the disease, too.

During the workshop they learn how to use make-up to disguise their symptoms, such as special foundations to calm flushed cheeks and concealers to hide dark circles under the eyes. There's even advice on how to create the illusion of eyelashes and brows lost through chemo.

All these little tips can make the difference to whether a woman suffering from cancer has the confidence to step out the front door and face the world or not. In fact, some cancer treatments can take such a toll on a woman's health and looks that some find it too difficult to carry on with their medication.

"Seeing their appearance being enhanced can help prevent women giving up on treatment, which a significant number do, simply because of the distressing side effects," explains Sarahjane Robertson, Executive Director of Look Good... Feel Better.

"When the women come in, they're often lacking in confidence and self-esteem. When they leave, they look fantastic, but it's not just in the make-up - they're buzzing, with a wide smile on their faces and a spring in their step."

The make-up gives the women their mojo back, but the workshops have another benefit. They can help their families cope with the trauma of their treatment.

"So many women are selfless," explains Sarahjane. "It's common for them to say that if they can look 'normal' again, it will help everyone else around them cope better with their being ill."

At today's session, the women - ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s - sit around a large white oval table. Some are in desperate need of a pick-me-up while others just want to be pampered.

Sarah came along in a bid to feel 'normal' again.

This month, she should have been celebrating becoming a mum. Instead, she's fighting cancer of the uterus.

Sarah discovered she was pregnant in January, but at just seven weeks she started bleeding. Tests showed she had a molar pregnancy - a condition in which something goes wrong at fertilisation, causing the placenta to develop abnormally into a mass of fluid-filled cysts known as a mole. Although her body had started to form a foetus and placenta, neither would grow properly. She needed an emergency termination.

But like eight per cent of the 1,800 molar pregnancies diagnosed each year in the UK, the pregnancy had already become cancerous.

"Not only was I mourning the loss of my baby, but I was then told I had cancer too," Sarah says.

Sarah and her partner Michael, 28, a service manager for a car firm, were devastated.

"It came as such a shock. I had to have three weeks of chemotherapy straight away as the cancer had already spread to my uterus wall. We should have been excitedly looking forward to becoming parents for the first time, but instead I was having daily injections to rid my body of cancer," she says.

Soon after starting chemo, her long brown hair fell out and she lost a stone in weight, dropping to just 6st 6lb.

"I was so sick, I couldn't work or even go shopping with my friends as my immune system had taken such a battering," she says.

"When I lost my hair, I started wearing a long brown wig, which sort of matched my old hair - but then I lost my eyelashes and eyebrows. Overnight, I looked like a cancer victim. I stopped wearing my wig. What was the point?

"I couldn't hide it any more. I looked like death and, to be honest, it really frightened me. Every time I looked in the mirror, I felt so ugly."

Two weeks ago, Sarah came across a leaflet about the workshops that she'd been given after a previous visit to Maggie's drop-in centre. "I decided anything was worth a shot," she says.

And it certainly was. Today, she's delighted that, facially, she looks much more like the 'old' Sarah.

"I'm so grateful," she beams. "It's amazing how a little bit of make-up can make such a difference."

She's due to finish chemo next month and hopes to be well enough to go back to her job as an accounts assistant in a building society.

"I'm confident enough to draw in my brows and eyelashes now," she says. "Hopefully I'll look good enough that people don't stare and pity me. I just want to look well again."

Alongside her is Gabrielle Smith, 34, from Chiswick, who is in remission for acute myeloid leukaemia.

Since her diagnosis in 2003 she's had a bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Her treatment has triggered a premature menopause.

"Sometimes it's not until a course of treatment is over that you get really down," she says, examining her carefully applied eyeshadow. "When it was all going on I was OK as I kept my head in the sand about my diagnosis - only recently my husband Brendon admitted he'd been told I had just a 50-50 chance of survival.

"Having to deal with menopausal hot flushes and the red marks that chemotherapy has left on my face and body means that I have days when I feel depressed.

"That's why something like this really helps. I want to find different ways to cover up those effects. Plus, it's an incentive to get you out of the house when all you want to do is wallow."

Each session lasts two hours and takes the women through the same 12-step programme, from cleansing to lip-lining. At the end of the day, they're each given a goody bag bulging with products donated from over 40 big beauty companies to take home with them.

Once it's time to try out their make-up tips for real, some of the women jump right in, while others anxiously wait for help. It seems cancer has robbed them of their confidence with make-up too.

"The worlds of beauty and illness have such a huge divide between them," says Claire Selby, a 54-year-old breast cancer patient from Harlesden.

"Today has helped us feel special again - not just a cog in a wheel, which is what you can feel like when you're going through endless treatments."

Beside her, Helen Gruber, 47, who is also being treated for breast cancer, nods her head.

"The fact that we do still care about how we look says something," she says. "It means we haven't totally given up."

Helen, a secretary from west London, was diagnosed this February and is due for a radiotherapy treatment after the session ends.

As the afternoon goes by, the chatter and laughter gets louder. The women sit around the table with dots of make-up on their faces, perhaps half an eyebrow drawn on, and every so often there's a gasp of "Oh dear!" followed by a giggle.

By the end of the session, as clich├ęd as it sounds, they really have been transformed. Not only do the women look different - they are different.

Katie Huggins, a 38-year-old architect from London, has been battling breast cancer since she was diagnosed in February.

"I've never worn this much make-up in my life!" she laughs.

"On the inside I've always felt good thanks to the support of my friends, family and church - but it's so lovely to have the chance to look just as good on the outside."


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