Passing mirrors without fear

A newly translated book teaches Hebrew-speaking cancer patients how to look like their old selves while undergoing treatment.

wigs 88 (photo credit: )
wigs 88
(photo credit: )
Surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and stem cell transplants are the key weapons in the war against cancer. But artificial eyelashes, liquid makeup, blusher, concealer, eyeliner, nail polish and wigs that make patients feel human and attractive again can be beneficial accessories in the fight. An outsider might pooh-pooh the importance of appearances when the struggle is to survive and recover. But being able to face family, friends and the mirror makes a real difference in coping with cancer. Lori Ovitz, an American Jewish makeup artist who worked for two decades on models, broadcasting and sports personalities and TV celebrities in her native Chicago, wrote (with health journalist Joanne Kabak) an impressive and colorful book called Facing the Mirror with Cancer: A guide to using makeup to make a difference. The 202-page, step-by-step guide ( has aroused much interest among female - and male - patients and cancer organizations since it was published in 2004. Now the Price Family Foundation in New York has financed its translation into Hebrew. The project, carried out by Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Medical Center and headed by Hanna Amid, has made it possible for 1,000 copies to be distributed through the Israel Cancer Association (ICA). Although there is no funding yet for translation into Arabic, Russian and other relevant local languages, there is clearly a need, as cancer ignores ethnic boundaries. Hebrew is the first language into which Ovitz's book has been translated. "This is a major contribution to the wellbeing of cancer patients," said Shaare Zedek director-general Prof. Jonathan Halevy at a recent reception honoring foundation representative Tina Price, who flew in from the US for the occasion. "With a professional-looking makeup job, you can boost their feelings and attitudes, men as well as women." ICA director-general Miri Ziv added that she was pleased her organization is involved, as "people who look better feel better. The book has a lot of added value." The book has been integrated into the ICA's "Look Good, Feel Better" project - a nationwide effort in which cosmeticians, hairstylists and makeup experts work for free on cancer patients in hospitals, outpatient clinics and even hospices for the terminally ill. Cancer patients get makeovers and are lovingly taught how to highlight their natural features and deal with hair loss due to chemotherapy. Needy patients - adults and children - even receive wigs at no cost. And every single participant gets a gift package of makeup donated by cosmetic companies. Dr. Francine Robinson, the ICA project's volunteer director, notes that the idea came from the US. Besides hair loss, chemotherapy and other treatments which are toxic to cancer cells cause healthy skin to turn pale and dry, and nails to become soft, thin or brittle, but these side effects can be dealt with. The project has spread to so many Israeli hospitals that Robinson is looking for more volunteer cosmeticians and hairstylists (call (03) 572-1618) THE HEBREW translation is exactly the same graphically and textually as the original book. Ovitz explains that by teaching cancer patients how to apply makeup, she enjoys seeing the transformation in their appearance, and how much better they feel about themselves. "I've written this book because I want to reach cancer patients everywhere so they can learn the tricks of my trade." She declares that there is no other book on the market that covers the territory she has. Having a book in their hands allows patients to apply makeup in a private place, and gives them a greater sense of dignity. "When you've taken control over temporary alterations to your appearance, you can feel more positive on the inside and be more confident in public." As a teenager, the author lost her best friend to cancer and was attracted to Chicago's cancer charities. She later decided to approach the program director of Gilda's Club, one of Chicago's most respected supporters of cancer patients and their families, with a plan to coach patients one-on-one. About six years ago, she began to teach women, teens, children and even men how to camouflage the side effects of cancer treatments. Since then she has been applying makeup in private sessions without charge at the Robert Lurie Cancer Center of Northwestern University Hospital and at the University of Chicago Hospitals. Her work with individual patients gave her the idea to write the book, which she published under the Belle Press imprint (in memory of her grandmother, Belle Michel) with her husband Bruce - a 35-year cancer survivor. The couple donate half of the profits from sales of the $25 book to cancer research and related causes. "A single makeup artist can serve only a limited number of people," Ovitz writes in her introduction. "A book of techniques that is clear, comprehensive and written with love can reach huge numbers of cancer patients who need to know this information. The message of the book is, 'You can look like yourself.' The question is, 'How do I do it and where do I begin?'" Her collaborator, Kabak, adds that Ovitz breaks taboos by showing before-and-after photos of real people, dismantling the taboo that one should be ashamed of the visible effects of cancer treatment. Susan M., an American wife and mother of two who contracted breast cancer and received cosmetic treatments and tips from Ovitz, writes in the volume that she was shocked as a "hair neurotic" - who loved beautiful hair and a great-looking hairstyle - when her tresses began to fall out after the first chemotherapy session. Afraid that it would blow away, she tearfully asked her husband to shave it all off. "I thought I looked so old. But as time wore on, I kept thinking that it's me. I'm still the same spirit, the same human being, the same wife, the same mother, the same sister, the same friend... The fact that I had breast cancer and was sick and undergoing chemotherapy really set in with the loss of my hair." She bought a new wig, but needed more to feel "attractive, pretty, soft and feminine." Ovitz taught her how to apply makeup and deal with the loss of eyelashes and eyebrows, the loss of weight that made her face thinner and her wrinkles more pronounced, and the loss of her normal skin color. "Her simple and easy-to-follow guidelines have become a way of life, a routine that has put sunshine back in some very cloudy days and nights. I have tried not to be vain," Susan writes, "but the fact remains that I do care about my appearance. I want to look good again... I receive so many compliments on my face that I truly feel confident about my looks." The 17 chapters, divided into four parts, begin with skin tips from a Cornell University dermatologist such as soaking in bath oil, not rubbing the skin after a shower or bath and using an electric razor rather than a blade to avoid cuts and bleeding. Ovitz and Kabak give detailed information on how to use brushes to camouflage splotches and other blemishes. They demonstrate how to apply under-eye concealer to cover dark circles, foundation, powder, blusher and bronzer, eye shadow and eye liner, mascara and false eyelashes. Creating eyebrows with a pencil without making them look painted on is a challenge, but not impossible. They tell readers that they don't have to go out and buy a whole new stock of makeup: The book helps them evaluate what makeup they have on hand and advises on using it in a new way. They take care to advise readers to consult doctors to find out whether it's safe to apply a specific product, especially soon after surgery, or if the patient has a fresh scar or alteration to their skin. Special advice for black people, and before-and-after photos of such patients, are also included. Part III is a short section addressing the cost, features and care of wigs, as well as the importance of handling fingernails and toenails. Although largely focused on solutions for women, the book offers techniques for the specialized needs of men, children and teens in Part IV. In the last of a series of testimonials and comments by patients and professionals, Dr. Gina Graci concludes the volume with the message that "although living with cancer is an unfamiliar concept, you can look well and live life to the fullest while undergoing treatment. "As technological advances are made, people live longer and have a better quality of life... If you can improve your appearance and minimize some of the physical side effects of cancer treatment..., you will feel better and cope more effectively with your cancer, as well as with other things in your life. "Always keep in mind that you are more than your cancer. You may have cancer, but you can look as if you don't."