When I found out that I had invasive breast cancer in January 2009, I thought first about dying.
It was only much later, around the time my son shaved my head and I found myself nauseated and worn out from my first chemotherapy treatments, that I started to think about how I looked. I had gone through a double mastectomy and was carrying a boardlike spacer in my chest for reconstruction when I discovered that my eyebrows and eyelashes were falling out.
Suddenly I looked fully fetal, like a bloated version of E.T., the extraterrestrial.
I remembered someone telling me about the Look Good, Feel Better program offered by the American Cancer Society and saw sign-up materials at my chemotherapy center.
When I had heard about the program pre-cancer, I had thought it was frivolity: Who could care about makeup when you were fighting for your life?
Being humbled by a killer disease wiped the floor with that snark. By the time I signed up for my Look Good, Feel Better afternoon, I was delighted just to leave the house.
I am not the only one.
Melissa Dean of Frankfort, who lost an eye to a rare form of cancer and underwent five radiation treatments a week, said the program allowed her to pal up with an older lady who also had cancer and joke their way through the class.
"She was going through chemotherapy," Dean recalled. "We were just sitting there, kind of playing together — girls having fun with some new makeup."
Cancer does not give its sufferers much time for play or much room for levity. You spend days fighting the effects of the treatment and staring at your own four walls.
The radiation gave Dean's face a burnt feeling, but now, she has come to terms with her survival and the steps she took, she said.
"You know what? I'm alive," said Dean, who wears an eye patch. "If you don't like it, don't look."
Linda Morris' late mother had ovarian cancer. After she died, Morris went to the American Cancer Society office to donate her wig and turbans. She wound up becoming a teacher for the Look Good, Feel Better programs.
She teaches the first Wednesday of every month at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center and at Central Baptist the second Monday night of each month.
Each class is different, Morris said, and depending on what the students want she simply might present them with the cosmetic and skin care items or address special concerns, such as how to compensate for dwindling eyebrows and eyelashes.
The process of putting on makeup can be therapeutic, she said.
"It's a proven fact if they keep a little color on them when they're going through this, it triggers something in the brain and it's much more healing for them," Morris said of cancer patients.
The program I attended was at the American Cancer Society's Hope Lodge. It gives out-of-town patients and their families a place to stay while the cancer patient receives treatment in Lexington.
There were five of us that day, and I was shamed to note that my health troubles were not the overwhelming challenge faced by some of the other women in the room. One acknowledged that she was terminal. Another was on her third round of different cancers ravaging her body. What we needed was not the makeup, but the routine of feeling normal.
Each participant gets a bag full of makeup, and what makeup it is: Mine had two tubes of Aveda lipstick, a Chanel blush, high-end cleansers, lotions, brushes, and enough base makeup and powder to last me for years. The American Cancer Society partners with the makeup and personal care industry to provide the goody bags, which are free.
We were led through a makeup routine in which we were shown how to deal with our scarce eyebrows and eyelashes in addition to a few tips on how to finger-fluff our wigs. It sounds trivial, but when you are able to put a little color on your lips and wear a wig that doesn't look as if you raided a polyester outlet, you feel a shade better. At the very least, you look good while cable-surfing and taking frequent naps.
I sat there in the lobby of the Hope Lodge in my spiffy makeup and styled wig and felt adult and professional again even as my stomach churned because someone was cooking nearby, something tomato-y and gooey that made me want to put my cheek to the floor. But I looked better, and my skin was no longer zombie gray.
My father, who died in 2010, took a picture of my bald head and my heavily made-up eyes that afternoon. I look otherwordly.
I kept up with the makeup routine while bald. Once my hair grew back, coarse and curly, and I started my routine of an hour-a-day walk, I gave it up.
But I still have one of the lipsticks in my purse. Occasionally I pull it out. It is fire-engine red and completely not my color. Still, it reminds me that no day in which I am still alive and carrying a lipstick can be considered the worst day of my life.
That's not a bad lesson.