When Clarissa Lugo was 19, she got the news many people fear, but never think they’ll receive: the bump looming in her underarm was a swollen lymph node, and indicative of melanoma. Following an appointment with a dermatologist, biopsied moles confirmed the diagnosis.
As she would come to learn, the lymph nodes act as “red flags,” our body’s way of alerting us that something is amiss. When she first felt the bump in her underarm, and noticed her skin alternating between dryness and severe acne, she thankfully heeded these external warning signs. Though her melanoma was detected at an early stage, it was a jarring wake-up call for Lugo, and one that sent her thoughts spiraling – that it was her fault for not taking better care of her skin, that she was alone and that it was up to her to learn how to heal.
Heal she did, beginning with the removal of numerous moles and suspicious-looking areas. Soon afterward, the swollen lymph node retreated and her scars began to heal. Subsequent biopsies performed came back benign. Lugo felt relieved. Monitoring her skin closely for the rest of her life was a small price to pay for detecting and eliminating melanoma within a four-month period.
She wondered to herself: Had I done enough to prevent myself from getting sick? In that moment, she dedicated herself to researching clean skincare products with sun protection. Her bathroom became a veritable science lab, where she tested cleansers, sampled sunscreens and eventually branched into makeup application.
What had begun as a determination to achieve a clean bill of health quickly evolved into a full-fledged passion for beauty and skincare. So, when a beauty consultant position opened at a nearby Walgreens in Chicago, she jumped at the chance to put her newfound skills and knowledge to use. It wasn’t until the day her store received information about Walgreens’ Feel More Like YouTM service that Lugo realized she was in a unique position.
“I was so excited – maybe a little too excited,” says Lugo. “They sent us these pins, and I put one on right away. Then I reached out to my beauty area expert and said, ‘Can you tell me more about this?’ I told her a little bit about my story, and I told her if I can be involved in this, I want to be involved on a high level.”
Feel More Like You launched in 2019, four months after Lugo joined Walgreens. This first-of-its-kind service was developed in collaboration with Look Good, Feel Better Foundation and Cancer Support Community to offer people with cancer targeted, in-store support from specially trained beauty consultants and pharmacists. Whether battling nausea or hair loss, individuals living with cancer can access free, personalized care at more than 3,000 Walgreens locations, with no appointment needed.
Now, Lugo could share her passion for beauty with other cancer fighters and survivors – exactly the kind of help she was looking for when she was first diagnosed.
“It would have been helpful if I had someone there for me to give me quick answers on how I could heal my skin or develop a healthier lifestyle,” she says. “And knowing that this resource was out there and available, I wanted to be a part of it so I could help others.”
After completing training, Lugo regularly joined other beauty consultants and pharmacists at events in the Chicago area, eventually becoming the area lead for Feel More Like You. In addition to participating in the St. Jude Fashion Show and Susan G. Komen Metastatic Breast Cancer Conference, Lugo frequented events hosted by Gilda's Club Chicago, a cancer support community offering access to and education in healthy lifestyle activities. Through beauty demonstrations, she saw the immediate impact that one-on-one conversation can have between two people close to a cancer diagnosis. Lugo loved being a source of encouragement for people dealing with unfamiliar changes in their appearance.
In the critical moment where she would hold up a mirror after a tutorial, she never failed to see a smile spread across the event-goer’s face. Discussing makeup, she found, was a welcome reprieve from the unrelenting mental and physical toll that cancer can take.
“I remember this one woman had lost her eyelashes after going through treatment,” Lugo says. “They had just started to grow back, and I asked her if she wanted to wear mascara. At first she said no because she didn’t really think it would do anything. I told her, ‘You'd be surprised. We can give it a try, and if you don't like it, we can remove it.’ The woman agreed. And when I showed her the mirror, she was speechless. We prefer to show them a more natural look, so they can truly embrace how beautiful they are. It makes me very emotional, but in a good way. It really drives me to keep doing this, to help people.”
After working alongside pharmacists for several months at these events, Lugo was inspired to do more. Through in-store training and digital programming, she obtained her pharmacy technician license in March 2019. Set on better understanding the pharmacy side of Feel More Like You, she shadowed the pharmacy team at the Walgreens specialty pharmacy at Northwestern Medicine later that summer.
Lugo quickly learned how a pharmacy within a specialty clinic operates differently than a typical store pharmacy. The location also served as a stark reminder of the struggles cancer patients endure on top of dealing with the rigors of treatment.
“I got to work with the team on the front lines, directly dealing with patients. I got to see how medications were filled and help them get treatment. I saw their stress,” she says. “They have a whole team of pharmacy techs who handle making calls to insurance companies. They reach out and find other avenues of financial aid so patients can afford the medication they need. Just seeing how willing everyone on the staff was to help these patients was truly amazing.”
Following the five-week shadow period, Lugo felt better equipped to give recommendations related to cancer needs to inquiring customers at her store. After meeting so many people who have battled cancer, she is fine-tuned to the sensitivities surrounding treatment and its internal and external side effects. When she suspects a patient’s line of questioning might be related to the disease, she asks open-ended questions to create a comfortable atmosphere.
In the fall of 2020, feeling healthy, well and as motivated as ever, Lugo began the courses required to become a certified pharmacy technician. Not a day goes by where she doesn’t apply sunscreen, and she meets with her dermatologist regularly for checkups. And for anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer and feels alone, she wants to make it clear that you are not.
“It's important that we surround ourselves with a good support system and that we never stop believing in ourselves,” she says. “It won't be easy, but I truly believe everyone has resilience inside of them.”