The Women Of The 2016 #SurvivingIsSexy Project
“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” ~ Pablo Picasso
It was with this vision that I organized The 2016 #SurvivingIsSexy Project. The purpose of Breast Cancer Awareness is traditionally to educate people about the disease, but I wanted to raise awareness in the actual participants. Awareness about the beauty that I see in each and every survivor. I wanted it to be a true celebration of beauty.
There was beauty in every race. There was beauty in every shape and in every size. There was beauty in the camaraderie itself. There was beauty in every single story of survival, and while I set out to educate, I found myself the student. Because in every single one of those stories, I learned that while every person on this planet is dying, these are the women who are truly living.
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“There’s a vibrance and a light in these women. They’re living, they’re not dying. Nobody else is living and they’re all doing it wrong!”
4 years ago, Dawn Giermata-Rodriguez learned she had stage 4 breast cancer with a possible 5-year life expectancy. Her response?
“That’s not going to work for me,”
and she has spent every minute since saying an enthusiastic “Yes!” to every opportunity she’s presented with. One of which is sharing her fundraising and networking skills with Faces of Courage.
“Get off your ass and do something. Live! Life is not going to knock on your door and say ‘Here, let me grab your hands and take you out.’ You have to grab life and say, ‘Hey. I’m going with you. Come on.”
Giermata-Rodriguez’ goal is to change what the face of cancer is. She says it’s not a ribbon, it’s not a color, it’s the faces and the light in these women.
“You take your first breath and you count it down on how many number of breaths you have. And you don’t know when that last one is. We just got a reminder.”
Rujel Buggs knew it was only a matter of time. Her mother and sister are both breast cancer survivors. That time ended up being January of 2016. When offered radiation, she refused and decided on a double mastectomy.
“They are breasts. These are something you can remove. You can still be alive. I was not going to let cancer, or the thought of treatment stop me from being active. So, I had them removed and moved on with my life.”
And move she did. In March, she had the double mastectomy followed by her breast reconstruction surgery. By late May she was back to running bleachers. She says that events like The 2016 #SurvivingIsSexy Project should serve as a reminder to never let taking care of your health and yourself become your last priority.
“We give all our time and pour all our lives into our children to make sure they’re ok and then we forget about ourselves. That day was about US. We weren’t second at that point, we were put first.”
Lehua Pettay is a 5-time cancer survivor. She was first diagnosed at 20 years old with breast cancer, and according to her doctors, the cancer had already been growing for some time. Despite the doctor’s recommendation to proceed with radiation and chemotherapy, Pettay refused. And refused treatment for cancer found later in her second breast and then both ovaries.
“It’s my decision, it’s my life. I want to do it my way. I know my body; I know what I feel.”
Instead, she sought alternative methods. She found it in music therapy.
“I’m a hippie. I hung out around a lot of drum circles.”
She delved into sound healing, an alternative therapy focused on using the vibrations and energy of music and sound to wake up your body’s natural immune response. In addition, in 2000 she decided to make some major changes to her lifestyle. She began by eating a completely organic diet, removing all genetically modified foods and eliminating all chemicals in her household, using homemade all natural products instead.
In 2005 her doctors declared her cancer free. Today, she still is.
On her 35th birthday, as a new mother, Karen Hackel learned she had breast cancer. BRCA testing was not available at that time. Many years later after losing her mother and sister, and another sister receiving the same diagnosis, she decided to be tested. She did, indeed, have the BRCA mutation.
“I was diagnosed with triple negative, which is not a good type to be diagnosed with. But I am one of the lucky ones.”
Once receiving the news, she decided to have both ovaries and fallopian tubes removed followed closely by a double mastectomy. Hackel began channel writing in 1998, after the loss of her father.
“My Whisper of Your Soul writings are completely unedited. It’s just basically free flow that comes to me. Really, it’s not like how I talk, it’s how things come through me.”
In 2011, she published her first book, The Whisper of Your Soul, a book of channeled messages including inspirations about life and death.
“I just published with the hope that maybe I would help one person.”
Today, with nearly 65,000 Facebook likes, it’s safe to say that she’s more than reached that one person goal.
“Two and a half years after everything, I just got sick of looking at my scars.”
So Darcelle O’Connor decided to transform them into a work of art. Instead of scars, she now has tattoos of memorable orchids gifted and grown throughout her cancer journey. One of which is of a gorgeous specimen given to her in the hospital by her best friend who also happens to be her husband.
“He’s everything to me…everything. Everything.”
O’Connor was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, underwent a double mastectomy in early 2011, and later that year, decided to pursue breast reconstruction surgery. A believer in signs, she knew she had found the perfect surgeon after meeting her at a St. Petersburg Orchid farm and bonding over, what else? Orchids.
In 2010, Kellie Kizis discovered a lump in her breast during a routine self-exam. Her initial mammogram results did not show signs of breast cancer, but a year later another revealed two tumors. After undergoing cancer treatment, she is now in remission. She says being involved in survivor groups and activities is important because it brings a sense of community and understanding that can be difficult to find elsewhere.
“When you ask another woman who has been through it, like ‘How are you doing?’ or about symptoms you may still have, they get it.”
Kizis discovered her love of exercise and fitness during a holistic group program for cancer patients and their caregivers. She has since become an avid runner.
“My personal trainer, she is the one who started me running on a treadmill. I had gained weight and lost self-confidence and I was down, but as I got stronger I started to feel better inside and out.”
She is currently training for a 10K run in two weeks, with her first half marathon next on her list.
How You Can Help
You can join the fight today against this egregious disease by donating to the Susan G. Komen organization, which has funded more than $889 million in research and over $1.95 billion in medical care. They also contribute to community and provider education and psychosocial support, serving millions in over 60 countries worldwide.
Without the generosity of our corporate sponsors, this event wouldn’t have been possible. To start the day, the ladies were pampered in luxury at the Aveda Institute Tampa Bay. The lovely Rhonda Shear graciously donated all of the fabulous panties for each woman to wear for the shoot. During the event, everyone was able to enjoy a wonderful selection of finger foods, snacks and mimosas thanks to the generous donations by Carey Leisure & Neal, MRI Associates and Gary L. Heller Dermatology. The day definitely would not have been the same without the soulful sound of the amazing Jennifer Real. The event was held at the gorgeous and historic Rialto Theatre in Tampa, and was donated by my new friends Hope and George. Also, thank you to Balloonies and Trader Joes for their contributions which helped make this a memorable day.
Finally, I would like to thank the people behind the scenes. Peggy Sherry with Faces of Courage, Stephanie Vasile with CL&N, Reanna Smith, Taylor Girard, Kate Scarth and last, but not least, the talented Talia Pate. I thank each of you for the roles you played in making this one of the most extraordinary days I have ever been a part of!