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In the limo heading to San Francisco, with sparkling cider and new friends on tap.

Special Report

Girls Day Out

Teens with cancer paint the town pink

Destinee File was wondering, “Should I get my hair done? Maybe a facial? What about a makeup session?”

These were some of the tough decisions Destinee and 11 other girls had to make when they rolled into the San Francisco Institute of Esthetics and Cosmetology for a Girls’ Day Out last October. The teens, all oncology patients who’ve been treated at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, were benefiting from an unusual program, which allows kids at various stages of illness to meet, have fun and forge new friendships.

Bonding through shared experience is an important but sometimes overlooked therapy, say hospital social workers. “A teenage girl with cancer faces not just the impact of diagnosis, but also the effects on her appearance,” says Tovah LeWinter, oncology social worker. “Some have lost hair and had feeding tubes and wheelchairs. We felt a girls’ day out would provide an opportunity to be with others who understand these challenges while sharing a day of beauty and fun.”

Destinee was psyched. “I thought it would be cool to meet new friends and share what we’ve been through,” says the 17-year-old from Watsonville, Calif. Diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia in 2008, Destinee spent five months in treatment. With her cancer in remission, visiting the beauty institute offered not just big-time pampering, but even some future direction. “This would give me a chance to discover more about cosmetology or fashion as a possible career,” she says.

“We knew it would be a day they’d never forget,” says Vanessa Ya Lopez, child life and recreation therapy specialist at Packard Children’s. No kidding. The girls journeyed to San Francisco in a sweet-riding, 34-foot, pink Hummer limo with “Girls Rock” on the windows. Inside? Sparkling cider and flowers. “Everyone laughed as people in cars driving by stared and took pictures,” says Lopez, who notes the girls broke through their initial shyness with tales about treatments.

The institute donated the beauty services. “Regardless of what stage of treatment these girls were in,” says Robyn Parrish, placement leader at the institute, “our goal was to help them all feel beautiful.” For Destinee, she decided on a facial and hair styling. “I absolutely loved it,” says Destinee, “and it made me feel great.”

The event was part of the CHEERS program (Children Having Exceptional Educational and Recreational Support), which was created in 1986 by two Stanford students. Past events include kayaking, concerts and even a Boys’ Day Out to see the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels in action. The girls’ event was sponsored by the 19 for Life Foundation and coordinated by the hospital’s child life and recreation therapy team.

After their glamour treatments, the girls hit the Cheesecake Factory for lunch and took photos at the Golden Gate Bridge. “Throughout the day, the girls became more familiar and enthusiastic with each other, especially after their beauty sessions,” says Lopez. “They even began discussing central lines and comparing scars.”

Eventually, the girls climbed into the limo for the trip back to Palo Alto, but not before giving Lopez plenty of let’s-do-it-again feedback. “Everyone was asking, ‘So, when’s the next trip?’” Lopez says she doesn’t have dates yet, but planning is under way. “When the girls come into the hospital or have clinic visits, they still talk about the limo, the makeovers and how much fun they had,” says Lopez. “We saw a transformation take place on this day, and it was a wonderful experience for all of us.”

— Robert Dicks

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video iconSee the Video: Twelve Oncology patients from Packard Children's enjoy a day of pampering in San Francisco






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