Sending confidence soaring: helping cancer patients to look and feel better

Sending confidence soaring: helping cancer patients to look and feel better

Pic: Patrick Boyd Photography

As an air hostess in the early Seventies, Bars Bullen soon learned a trick or two about good grooming that stayed with her long after her flying career ended.

“We had to look immaculate at all times,” recalls the glamorous gran who spent two years in her 20s working for British European Airways based
at Heathrow. Professional hair and make-up training was a pre-requisite for the job and Bars – real name Barbara – was an attentive learner.

“It turned out to be a lesson for life. The expert advice I was given followed by the discipline of having to look smart and well turned-out on duty at all times never left me,” she adds. And it was a morale-boosting godsend when she was diagnosed with breast cancer more than ten years ago and had to undergo gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment sessions after surgery.

For the past five years, she’s been passing on her tips for looking fabulous and beautiful to  hundreds of other women going through the same confidence-draining experience. Even though bubbly Bars, who is married to second husband Fabian and lives near Saffron Walden, Essex, is  ‘a glass half full’ person by nature, the change in her appearance was a shock.

“Before treatment you’re a size 10 blonde but then suddenly you’re a size 16 with no hair, no eyelashes or eyebrows and spots. You don’t want to go out anywhere because you feel so rubbish,” she says. “Going to bed and losing your hair, only to wake up and find it in your mouth is dreadful.”

Her own answer was to  continue making an effort to look good and to take control of the situation herself. She arranged for a hairdresser to come to her house and shave off the remaining locks before they fell out of their own accord, then she bought three very different wigs. “Everybody knows it’s a wig anyway so you may as well have fun!” she laughs.

Costing £200 each, one was a white blonde one, the second a short spiky brown, and the third, which she refers to as her ‘Sharon Osbourne’ one, had black roots and red tips. After losing her  eyelashes, she says she “just went out and bought some.” When her eyebrows disappeared, she carefully painted them on to frame her face. Soon she was “good to go.”

Although Bars, who is in her 60s, recognises that not everyone else is blessed with such a strong personality as hers – especially at such a trying time – she hopes her own story will be helpful to other women who are undergoing cancer treatment.

Based at St Margaret’s Hospital in Epping, she is a voluntary co-ordinator of the Fabulous and Beautiful group she set up, where female cancer patients are treated to three free sessions of pampering by a team of volunteer professional hairdressers,  beauticians and a wardrobe stylist. Fundraising events and donations pay for make-up products and false eyelashes.

Advice is freely dispensed on everything from mastectomies to disguising muffin tops created by fattening  steroid drugs, as patients enjoy a relaxing hand massage or manicure or have fun experimenting with different wigs.

‘Cancer patients are treated to three free sessions of pampering’

“Women often think they should pick a wig that’s exactly the same as their normal hairstyle but sometimes skin tones change during treatment and, although they may have previously been blonde, they might find short, dark hair suits them better."

They also get advice on how to adapt to dressing for a different-shaped figure on a budget and accessorise with scarves and costume jewellery. “Women walk in here all timid and looking grey and ill, but walk out looking fantastic, declaring: ‘my husband’s taking me out tonight!’ They’re ready to face the world... it’s a real morale booster."

Equally important though, according to Bars, is that the sessions give women the chance to share similar experiences. "Often patients go to hospital appointments with their husbands and don’t get the chance to chat to others in the same postion.
Here they can get their nails done while chatting to the woman at the next seat. It’s a real ice-breaker. “One old lady from Newcastle recently gave us a £100 donation and said: ‘I came in here feeling so depressed, but you girls saved my life.’ That makes it all worthwhile.

“It’s wonderful to see a real change in people – physically and mentally – but it’s also great fun, too.”

Bars’ tips

  • If your skin becomes drier with treatment, try aloe vera jelly.  It’s the cheapest and best moisturiser I’ve ever known.
  • If chemotherapy drugs make you gain weight and  develop a muffin top,  buy tops made of loose, silky fabrics and invest in a range of brightly-coloured cheap camisoles to stick out of the end of sweaters. Four to five inches of orange lace under a navy jumper does a great job of distracting the eye from the problem area!
  • If your complexion becomes redder, dab on a green corrective cream under your make-up.

For more skin and beauty advice for cancer patients, visit