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"Screw my odds. I’m going to be amazing." How a makeover changed this woman's cancer experience.

Niccola, cancer-free and dancing at her wedding in 2014. (Source: Supplied.)

Niccola was only 30 when she received the life-changing diagnosis that she had breast cancer.

“My sense of self was just shattered, to the point where I couldn’t even recognise myself in the mirror,” remembers Niccola. “I was so thin, and I was so pale, and obviously I’d even lost my breasts. I looked so bad, and it took me a minute to recognise that that skeletal girl was me.”

Related: Just 10 more minutes in surgery could halve the number of breast cancer patients returning to the operating theatre.  

This moment that Niccola describes so vividly – the moment of not recognising herself in the mirror, after undergoing multiple surgeries and chemotherapy – is at the very heart of Look Good Feel Better. Niccola attended a Look Good Feel Better workshop soon after her diagnosis, where attendees are taught to use beauty products to make themselves feel less like cancer patients, and more like the person they used to see in the mirror, all with the help of volunteering beauty industry professionals.

“You’re so busy just being functional, you don’t think about being beautiful.”

 “I was just relieved to not be around doctors and nurses for an afternoon,” confides Niccola, as she recalls the Look Good Feel Better workshop she attended a reassuring number of years ago.

A volunteer helps a cancer patient apply her makeup at a Look Good Feel Better workshop. (Source: Supplied.)

“The day you get your cancer diagnosis is the day you hand over all your responsibility to someone else. From then on, your oncologist, your surgeon, your nurses – they’re looking after you, and they’re effectively going to save your life.

“The thing about Look Good Feel Better is that it proves that there’s little things you can do, for you, that are in your control.”

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For Niccola, this meant learning how to draw on her eyebrows once the chemotherapy caused her eyebrows to slowly fall out, and using eyeliner to create the illusion of a cluster of eyelashes. (Post continues after gallery.)

In her blog, Niccola had written about the trauma of losing her eyelashes: “I wish I was the type to wish on eyelashes. I would’ve had so many wishes that I could’ve wished myself clear into May next year,” she mused in November 2012.

Related: “If the odds are like the lottery, why couldn’t I be a scratch-off millionaire rather than ‘Cancer Girl’? 

Most important was the positive difference that make-up made to Niccola’s self-esteem.

“Because you’re so busy just being functional, you don’t think about being beautiful.

Niccola used the skills she learned from Look Good Feel Better when she attended a wedding in the middle of her chemo treatments. She even wore a wig. (Source: Supplied.)

“You really have to remind yourself. You have to consciously go, ‘No, I am beautiful and I will make myself beautiful.’ I think Look Good Feel Better made me more aware that that was a technique that I could use,” says Niccola.

Moments of comfort and luxury were rare for Niccola, which is why beauty treatments had such appeal.

“By the time you’re going through treatment, there’s precious little pleasures that are available to you. Even eating chocolate – a normal girl thing – doesn’t work, because the chocolate doesn’t go down well.

Participants at a Look Good Feel Better workshop. (Source: Supplied.)
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“I always advise people, when they’ve got friends going through cancer, to get them good beauty products, because it’s honestly one of the last things you can do. You can look after you, and it’s unlikely that’s going to cause you any harm.

“I think the thing about cancer is that it’s so big, it’s almost like you can’t comprehend it as a person,” Niccola confirms.

Related: Stop everything. Chocolate that reduces wrinkles has been invented.

“I know this comes up again and again, for women who have cancer – everyone always wants to be so deep and meaningful about it, but I think that what a lot of women want, or at least, what I wanted, was a bit of superficiality,” recalls Niccola. (Post continues after gallery.)

Making a difference, one day at a time.

Carol Kavurma, the national manager of Look Good Feel Better, shares a story that many women know to be true: when we are tired or just have a cold, a shower and a touch of makeup can make us feel “a thousand times better.” This sentiment is only magnified when experienced by a cancer patient.

“We don’t pretend we’re going to find a cure,” Carol elaborates. Instead, the Look Good Feel Better workshops are about creating a tangible, immediate result. As Carol says, “It’s about making a difference to that patient’s life that day.”

Applying eyeshadow at a Look Good Feel Better workshop. (Source: Supplied.)
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“You know,” Carol tells me during the workshop I attended, “Nobody wants to feel like a cancer patient. And nobody wants to be looked at like they’re a cancer patient.”

“Our workshop participants don’t want people feeling sorry for them. They just want to feel like themselves again.”

“Everyone knows why they’re there. The workshop should be fun, at the end of the day.”

Related: I spent a whole week trying to be a “positive person”.  

The process of reinvention.

At the end of the workshop that I visited, the participants are transformed, in their appearance and spirits. Many of the women are wearing newly fitted wigs, and they beam at each other. Gai Mitchell, a volunteer, asks each woman to share what she enjoyed the most about the workshop.

Jan Wright, a wig and scarf specialist, styles the patients at a workshop. (Source: Supplied.)
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One woman in her 40s, who started the workshop in silence, had opened up throughout it, asking her neighbours about the type of cancer they were suffering from. When it’s her turn to speak, she says this:

“It’s so great to hear what everyone’s going through, because I don’t feel so alone. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re devastated. Now, I don’t feel like the only one,” she smiles.

Related: 7 ways to shorten the distance between you and your best friends.  

One cancer patient has brought her adult daughter for company, and I catch the daughter looking at her mother as they leave.

“You look lovely, mum,” she says.

Left: Carol Kavurma, national manager of Look Good Feel Better. Centre: Jan Wright, volunteer wig fitter and scarf stylist. Right: Gai Mitchell, volunteer facilitator and hair and makeup artist. (Source: Supplied.)

Niccola is now on the other side of her cancer journey, three years after her initial diagnosis. She’s on the last stage of her treatment, which is a hormone therapy. These days, she feels that she’s reinventing herself.

“I almost struggled more after my treatment, because it was like, ‘Well, what now?’ I’d been handed back the keys to my life, my doctors had kind of said, ‘You’re on your own, and you need to get back to normality.’"

Niccola today, as a cancer survivor. (Source: Supplied.)
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“In my heart of hearts, I don’t feel as beautiful as I used to before the whole treatment thing,” admits Niccola. (As her friend, I have always thought of her as beautiful – and now, even more so, because she has survived cancer. Nothing is more beautiful than a friend who is alive.)

“I think I’ve been reinventing myself ever since. I’ve been trying to figure out who this new woman is, and how I can best represent her.

Related: It’s been viewed more than 10 million times: The beauty tutorial that slams makeup-haters.  

“Even makeup-wise, post-treatment, I had to go through a series of reinventions. I needed to just figure stuff out, like how do you dress and how do you do your makeup when you’ve got a shaved head? You need to go a lot more feminine, so I went through a very 60s period - big winged eyes, that sort of thing.”

Niccola's amazing new cactus tattoo. (Source: Instagram.)

A very recent part of Niccola’s reinvention is her first tattoo, a pop-art rendition of a triumphant cactus on her inner forearm, which she acquired in Amsterdam.

“I know that people are going to ask me why it’s a cactus,” she laughs.

“What I love about cacti is that they’re so flamboyant, they’re so unique, incredible and quirky - and underneath the most difficult of circumstances. They should be all shriveled and grey, and instead, they’re these funky, oversized things.

“I love the fact it’s like, ‘Screw my odds. I’m going to be amazing.’”

Visit the Look Good Feel Better website for more information on workshops, volunteering and donations. Or, donate to their crowdfunding campaign to add 20 more workshops across Australia. 

Related: Questions to ask yourself before considering alternative cancer therapy. 

Have you attended a Look Good Feel Better workshop? Do you have some tips on how to feel good when life isn't great?

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