With an appetite for adventure, Dubliner Cathy Moore had great plans for her 50th year; among them were trips to Disneyland Paris, San Francisco and Las Vegas. The last thing she was banking on was a detour, but a breast cancer diagnosis in 2011 soon put paid to that.
"It confirmed what I more or less knew myself, but meeting with the consultant, I got a sense that this was serious," she recalls. "It was like a punch in the gut."
Treatment would involve a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy… and Cathy herself had a plan of action.
"We had to plan a trip to the hairdresser, and to buy a wig," she recalls. "The hair wasn't as big an issue as the eyelashes and brows," she added. "That really strips you of your identity. I was on steroids too, so I felt like a marshmallow. I was looking in the mirror like, 'who am I looking at? Where am I?'"
Through nurses at Beamount Hospital, Cathy heard of Look Good Feel Better, a non-profit initiative created by the Irish Cancer Society (ICS) especially to give women back their identity. Sixty volunteers - most of them beauty therapists and make-up artists - meet with patients in 12 hospitals around Ireland, and offer them tutorials and hints on how to work with their wigs, fill in sparse brows, or do their make-up.
In the battle against a life-threatening disease, mascara may appear a triviality, but for most patients who have availed of the service - around 800 women in Ireland last year - the service becomes a true lifeline. The initiative is available in 26 countries around the world, and since the Irish programme's inception in 2003, almost 9,120 women have benefited from the service. Oncology or ICS Daffodil Centre nurses arrange the appointments, often held on-site at the treating hospital, and products are generously donated by many of the major cosmetic companies. The entire operation is also run through fundraising and volunteers' efforts.
"It's a laugh a minute," affirms Moore. "When you're on a time scale, and it's 'don't do this, don't eat that', and you think there's nothing you can do, it's like manna from heaven. The life force comes back into you. I honestly felt like a woman again."
Hilary Dunne, a homemaker from Tallaght, Dublin, was also diagnosed with breast cancer on her 45th birthday. Told that the cancer was "aggressive but highly treatable", she too underwent chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.
"When (the diagnosis) was confirmed, I said, 'okay, let's do what we have to do. It's not going to get me so let's get on with it'," she recalls. "My advice to anyone having chemo would be to get rid of your hair before it falls out. I left mine really short, and some of it came out in the shower. And it wasn't a nice experience. On the upside, you haven't the energy to wash or blowdry your hair anyway." Similarly, Look Good Feel Better, she says, "put the juice back into me".
"I went in and came out buzzing, on an absolute high. I didn't have energy to shop for creams and make-up but I was given a kit and a road map. Doing this meant it was a day at hospital where you weren't getting needles stuck in you. No one spoke about cancer. I couldn't tell you what cancer they had, but I knew what shade of lipstick they were wearing."
Look Good Feel Better had benefits that Hilary didn't see coming: "One of the hardest things was seeing the fear in my son and daughter's eyes, and my husband's eyes, when I would come home from the hospital. One evening, for about two hours, Sarah (my daughter) and I had great fun with make-up instead. When I look back on the whole chapter, that's the thing I remember about the journey. Not the hospital time."
Margaret Heffernan, joint programme manager at Look Good Feel Better, adds: "A lot of women feel guilty for feeling bad about losing their hair. They know it's not the most serious thing going on for them, but it's still an awful feeling.
"It's an afternoon where they can forget about what's going in. Our looks are such an integral part of our personality and lives. And the difference between a stranger noticing and not noticing their illness can sometimes make all the difference."
The Irish Cancer Society's 30th Daffodil Day takes place tomorrow. For more information, see cancer.ie/daffodilday. For more on Look Good Feel Better, to donate, or become a volunteer, see lookgoodfeelbetter.ie or call 01 873 4996