“At least I’ve still got my hair. And then it fell out. I cried.”
It’s an early spring day when Marie Harris walks into the room, as bright and cheerful as the day outside.
Now 73 and full of beans, Marie wasn’t always quite so chirpy. At the age of 64, just five months after losing her husband and soul mate Ted to cancer, she received another blow – she was diagnosed with bowel cancer.
“They moved very quickly,” she says. The day after diagnosis, she had an MRI scan. Just six days after diagnosis she was in surgery, having part of her bowel removed. One month later, her oncologist said it was now time for chemotherapy. What neither he, nor Marie, knew was that her genetic makeup would cause a severe reaction to the treatment that almost cost Marie her life.
Three days after her first chemo treatment her mouth was abnormally dry, two days later her mouth was full of ulcers and she had difficulty breathing. She developed severe yeast infections and the skin on her hands and feet started peeling.
One week after that treatment she was back in hospital - in isolation - for 16 days, with internal bleeding added to the list of things going wrong. “My body was closing down… my oncologist told me I was so near to death when I came in it wasn’t funny.”
Eventually she recovered and went home. “After I got home from hospital I thought at least I’ve still got my hair. And then it fell out. I cried.”
Marie was feeling very alone. All her life she had been busy – as well as raising a family, she had run her own florist business for many years, and then worked part-time once she sold it. But cancer forced her into unwanted retirement – she was simply too ill to work.
Two of her adult children were overseas and the other couldn’t be there all the time because of work commitments. And, like many cancer patients, she realised many of her friends were staying away.
When Marie first saw the oncologist she filled out a form for Look Good Feel Better, and then never really thought about it again. But once she got home from hospital she received a phone call – would she like to attend a workshop?
Marie was no stranger to makeup – she had worn it all her adult life, but, like many women, had learned through trial and error. She jumped at the chance to find out how the professionals did it, and she figured it would help to lift her spirits. “I wanted to go along because I lost an awful lot of confidence in myself.”
Like many women attending the workshop, Marie was a bit apprehensive at first, but by the time it was over her confidence had returned. She immediately started thinking about going out and doing things again, rather than hiding away. “Just going to that class was something that gave me a complete lift.
“I felt great, really great. I even went to Australia after that to visit my daughter and grandchildren. I had been saying I’ll come when I feel right.”
The experience was such a help in overcoming her despondency that Marie decided she wanted to give something back. So she applied to become a volunteer for Look Good Feel Better, helping with workshops for other women, and also for the Cancer Society.
Nine years later, she’s still volunteering for both, and credits the workshop with turning her around at a time she was feeling very low. “It just made me feel that I wanted to give something back …it was something I felt I could do.”
Look good feel better in New Zealand
Look Good Feel Better is a free service offered to women undergoing treatment for cancer. The programme helps to restore and enhance the appearance of cancer patients during and after treatment, and uses the services of beauty experts located across the country. As well as support, guidance and free makeover workshops, the organisation transform the look and outlook of more than 3000 Kiwi women living with cancer each year.
• Look Good Feel Better has been running in New Zealand for 18 years.
• More than 10,000 women are diagnosed with cancer in New Zealand every year.
• In 2009 alone, LGFB workshops helped more than 2770 women face the mirror and the future with increased confidence.
• The organisation’s aim is to help more than 3000 women this year.
• Workshops are run in 23 regions of New Zealand.
• Last year, more than 180 workshops were held throughout the country.
• In excess of 460 volunteers around New Zealand give their time to helping women at workshops.
• Look Good Feel Better has helped more than 23,400 patients in New Zealand since the programme’s inception.
• The Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association of NZ (CTFA) donates more than $2 million a year.