More than two years ago, Olivia Fierro's greatest worries were no different from those of most Americans. Paying her bills, taking care of her two sons and planning for the future were everyday anxieties. But when a sharp pain in her abdomen turned out to be ovarian cancer, the rest of her life was put on hold and her health became her main concern.
Months of chemotherapy took a toll on her body, causing drastic weight and hair loss. Suddenly, the once-confident woman found herself dreading the thought of being seen in public.
"I didn't even want to look in the mirror at first," said Fierro, "but later I changed."
While undergoing treatment at L.A. County-USC Medical Center's Women's Hospital, Fierro and other female cancer patients were invited to attend a program called "Look Good . . . Feel Better." A bit skeptical at first, Fierro listened as former cancer patients and advisers from the American Cancer Society, the National Cosmetology Assn. and the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Assn. Foundation discussed how makeup and wigs provided through the program could give a patient a healthier, more attractive appearance.
Fierro and the other patients watched as the volunteers brought out bags of donated cosmetics. The women held up mirrors and looked at themselves nervously as cosmetologists began teaching them about proper skin care. Soon, the patients were giggling among themselves and applying makeup.
After the makeup lesson, the women selected wigs that matched their skin tones and picked out scarves and turbans.
As a result of the program's success with cancer patients across the country, organizers decided to reach out to more women by developing a similar program in Spanish. Through the efforts of Latino doctors, nurses and volunteers, the "Look Good . . . Feel Better" program is being offered to Spanish-speaking patients at the Women's Hospital.
The program "offers a non-medical opportunity to increase self-esteem and feel more confident about life," said Dr. Mercedes Brenneisen-Goode, a Los Angeles cancer specialist.
"It gives you hope," said Fierro, whose cancer is in remission and who has returned to work as a seamstress. "It's so important when people tell you that you look good."
The program now operates in 45 states; it served 20,000 women in 1991. Since its inception in 1989, it has been expanded to half the nation's comprehensive cancer centers. Spanish-language programs have been expanded to several area medical centers, and organizers also visit other hospitals upon request.
\o7 Organizers have set up a toll-free number, (800) 395-5665, to inform patients about programs near them. Information on cancer presentations in Spanish is available from American Cancer Society regional offices as well as Santa Marta Hospital's cancer center, (213) 260-8690, in East Los Angeles.