The Power of a Pink Pom-Pom

Funny how life has a way of connecting complete strangers and transforming this connection into so much more! A few days following her guest talk at the Rose of Hope luncheon supporting the Norma Pfreim Cancer Center in Fairefield, Connecticut, One Wig Stand’s founder and managing director Loryne Atoui-Laham had the chance to bump into Alexandra Wallace-Currie of The Pink Pom-Pom Project at a local design fair (who it turned out had been at the luncheon a few days earlier and heard about our organization). The name alone is enough to draw you in, but wait till you hear how this charity is empowering (and keeping stylishly cozy) cancer patients within Fairfield and beyond:

  1. What inspired you to start “The Pink Pom-Pom Project” and where did the catchy name originate from?

I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Breast Cancer in October 2010 in London, UK. After the initial shock, horror and reality of my situation, I had to be a realist and get back to being a Mommy first. My kids were young and did not understand, let alone would not stand for mommy sitting or laying around the house. As cancer treatment goes, my chemotherapy sessions quickly started after surgery in November. My hair began to fall out in clumps everywhere I went: in the mall, in the shower – it was disheartening however, I had my three kids to look forward to, especially their beautiful smiles! Chemotherapy is not doubt horrible and sitting alone in the sessions is even worse. I am an eternal optimist and always try the find the good in every situation. So I would walk around the clinic trying to talk to people, but none were interested. I was so bored even catching up on sleep was boring! So I started to blog and knit hats and scarves for other cancer survivors.

One chilly afternoon in London and in my cozy room after chemo, I began to shiver. Women do not realize when your hair is gone, life can be freezing! So I started knitting a hat for myself.

“The Pink Pom-Pom Project” was named after I had knitted my own ‘floppy cancer hat’ and popped a huge pink pom-pom on top. My girls came into the room and cheered when they saw it. I asked if they would like to learn how to knit to help make hats and scarves for others. They both agreed and asked if we could call it “The Pink Pom-Pom”, I added the “Project” and three weeks later we were applying for a trademark!

Alexandra wearing the Pom-Pom that inspired her to launch this initiative. Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

Alexandra wearing the Pom-Pom that inspired her to launch this initiative. Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

I’ll say the PPPP came in the nick of time because my cancer treatment was a rough one. I had been hospitalized four separate times, other than surgeries even on Christmas morning and Valentine’s Day! We started the PPPP in London and we moved to the United States in December 2011. I opened my first physical shop in February 2012 and started our very first “Stitch & B*tch” group soon-after. These sessions take place every week on Monday and Thursdays. We try to help every woman we can in any way during cancer treatment and afterwards by providing art classes as a means of emotional therapy. In two and half years, we have connected with seven different organizations through Fairfield County and work with cancer survivors and inner-city youth. We teach arts and crafts and life skills, i.e. knitting and sewing to children ages 7 years+.

  1. What are the benefits of crafting for patients undergoing cancer treatment, or for cancer survivors, and what’s it like at one of your “Stitch & B*tch” groups?

When I was undergoing treatment – and I had mentioned before how boring chemotherapy can be – arts and crafts got my mind off my current situation. It helped me escape into a world of creativity.

xx

Everyone hard at work during a stitching session. Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

It was especially fun because between chemo sessions I would hold “Stitch & B*tch” parties at my home. We spread to crafting because a lot of people did not know how to knit. And I always provide instruction at all group sessions in case any one wants to learn, or has any issues. “Stich & B*tch* is fun and productive. We’ve also started introducing other projects, like lavender sachets as sleep aids and small quilts.

When women in need get together, it’s amazing how powerful just talking and sharing can be. Especially to someone who may have trouble expressing themselves or who is completely overwhelmed with fear by this disease.

  1. Your shop, “A Little Square” in Fairfield, plays a direct role in helping support “The Pink Pom-Pom Project”. Where do these two ventures overlap and how are they different?

”A Little Square” was started in London when I arrived pregnant with my second child. It was first a hobby. I would import hand-painted baby clothing and accessories by my twin sister, Shepherd. There were no cute preppy Americana gifts and baby stuff that was affordable for everyone to enjoy. Everything was too expensive, especially when you have to purchase ten gifts for all your new mommy friends! “A Little Square” has been in business since 2005 and was mainly a home-run/trunk show business for the first year. It then expanded to gift shows and became known as the Americana Chic Gift store – apparently I found a niche and it was fun while it lasted!

Now “A Little Square” serves an even bigger and better purpose. It currently underwrites “The Pink Pom-Pom Project” and provides supplies, materials, equipment, and instruction to the groups we work with all for free.

The PPPP prides itself on providing the same classes to under-privileged children. One of its many mottos is ‘Why take a child to K-Mart when you can take them all to Coco Chanel’ – the playing fields should be the same!

When you shop at “A Little Square” you are directly giving back to the local community. It’s a ying-and-yang kind of charity!

  1. The headscarves you make are not only beautiful with uplifting colors, but also very practical and comfy. How did you draw on your own experience to design them and what other items have you designed for patients?

I grew up in the 70’s and my mother’s hair started thinning after having six kids. So she made this amazing scarf that she would wear almost every day of the summer.

The design of our scarf is completely based off her own design with extra padding in front to give the illusion of ‘hair’ for patients. The crown part is slightly poofier too because when you are undergoing Chemotherapy, although you may be cold or hot, the skin on your head must breathe.

Because in spring it’s too hot to wear hats and beanies, we patterned our scarf in bright-colored fabrics designed by very talented textile designers, like Amy Butler, Heather Bailey, Kaffee Fassett and many more. PPPPImage_CraftSession1 In terms of designing other products, we make other things like Lavender Sachets, Prayer Shawls, Hats and Scarves, PPPP Pillows and now, thin Cotton Quilts for Chemotherapy.

  1. How many women do you work with/have you worked with on making these headscarves (and other products for patients) and what are some of the reactions of the patients who’ve received these lovingly-made gifts?

I would say from the time we started The PPPP crafting parties in 2011, easily 400+ people. We not only work with women undergoing treatment, but their families participate as well. We also work with The Girl Scouts of CT. We schedule GS Troops, many groups come between 13-20 kids, and they make Lavender Sachets for cancer survivors [to aid in sleep]. We also ask the children from our community centers to help make the Lavender Sachets.

My favorite part is the reactions from everyone involved. From the moment we start a project, I explain to groups about our charity and why they come together. When everyone understands the project, the excitement builds and goods get made faster! It’s really sweet.

We have a program called The Volunteer Of The Year (V.O.T.Y.) Quilt, which is made exclusively by cancer survivors for a dedicated volunteer in a cancer clinic. Their reactions are priceless because they never expect anything back!

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Volunteers hard at work knitting to support cancer patients. Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

  1. You founded “The Pink Pom-Pom Project” while living in London and now you’ve expanded your reach to the U.S.A. Where do you see the charity heading next and what exciting projects can we expect in the future?

Well, that is a good question!

Because 1 in 3 will get cancer in the US, it is imperative we reach out into other communities and establish the PPPP as an optional therapy tool. I have always thought franchising was a possibility. I have been asked by other hospitals to come and share, that is on the agenda!

However, for the remainder of 2015, we have a very exciting project that will take The PPPP into a whole new direction. We are sponsoring Art Rooms within the inner-city youth community centers we teach at. Our very first Art Room will be at The Cardinal Shehan Center in Bridgeport. We will be redesigning their space, providing new options for art, especially offering Sewing Classes as an important life skill. Their current room is a little out-dated and needs a new bright look to encourage creativity. We are really looking forward to it!

  1. “The Pink Pom-Pom Project” donated more than 25 headscarves to our organization last month (June 2015) to be passed on to patients in Lebanon. We are beyond touched by this very kind and generous gesture. What message do you hope to send across to the patients who’ll be receiving them?
Our wig stand modeling the beautiful headscarves donated to our patients by The Pink Pom-Pom Project. Doesn't she look fabulous? Image Source: The Pink Pom-Pom Project

Our wig stand modeling the gorgeous headscarves donated to our patients by “The Pink Pom-Pom Project”. Doesn’t she look fabulous? Photographs by: Sally Mansour

There was an angel in my mist after I was diagnosed. After the initial diagnosis, I was in shock but I did not want to strike fear in anyone else. I could not walk, my legs would not support me. I was devastated and could not see the future, I could not see my life, I could not see my children. While I waited for the final results, a young woman walked in to the room I was waiting in. She was not a counselor or a Doctor: she was a Secretary in the Accounting Department. She said these two magical words to me “Six Years”. For a moment, I did not understand what she said. I assumed after diagnosis I was headed for the crematorium: life was over for me.

“Six Years I have survived from Stage 3 Breast Cancer. I am 27-years-old and know I have a future ahead of me,” she said. “You can do this my friend.”

So I stood up, wiped my face and tears away and said she was right. The fear subsided for the moment and I walked out of the clinic with a whole new perspective on life.

That young woman saved my life. Cancer saved my life as I watched the days drift away with frivolous activities that meant nothing to me or anyone else. Now I look at everything and live every day to the fullest. I pay it forward by working with people who need help.

This is my therapy and I hope you can help someone else in their journey back to health. others in their journey back to health. I would encourage women to make things for newly-diagnosed women because it would really help lift them up during this phase. Thank you and God Bless!

We’d like to take this chance to thank Alexandra, her team and everyone who’s worked on the headscarves through The Pink Pom-Pom Project for donating these gorgeous headscarves to our organization. The patients that have started receiving them as a result of this kind gesture absolutely love them!

Find out more about The Pink Pom-Pom Project:

* Feeling inspired to do something to help patients here too, but don’t know what yet? Or maybe you already have an idea but don’t know how to make it a reality? Get in touch with us and we’ll find a way!

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Interview: “The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project”

It all started with a painting of her son as Spiderman – and then it became much more than just realizing a child’s innocent daydream!

The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project is an inspiring initiative that celebrates the superhero inside every breast cancer patient. We reached out to the artist behind these empowering portraits, Barbara Porwit, to find out more about the project and to get to know these captivating superheroes better:

1. What (or who) inspired you to start “The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project”?

This project started as many things do – an unexpected journey.

As an artist, I’d always been fascinated with figures and faces and in 2009 I did a portrait of my son as Spider-man. As you might expect, it was fun – and the image is fun — but it was also something more. As a viewer, you can tell that it’s a kid in a costume, but he KNOWS he can do it, he KNOWS he’s going to get the bad guy and save the day.

Zander as Spiderman: the original Superhero Portrait!

Zander as Spiderman: the original Superhero Portrait!

I realized this was about something that is in ALL of us. I was just beginning to explore this idea of the everyday superhero when it seemed everyone I knew started to get breast cancer.

Well, that is a journey that no one wants to go on – and like most people I was shocked, I was worried about my friends but I didn’t know what to do. Then I realized – what am I doing in the studio?

I connected the dots, and the Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project was born.

2. You are the one who usually asks this question, but we’d like to ask it this time: If you were to be immortalized as your superhero of choice, who would you be and why?

My goodness, thank you for asking this question. I am even more impressed with you now – this is one that is often overlooked (which I am fine with – the project really is about honoring and celebrating others).

It’s funny, I HAVE grappled with this question a bit and found I’m a bit hesitant to step into the superhero ring myself, but even so there have been a couple answers to that question that have been floating around.

One would be that we would do a family portrait, with me as Wonder Woman and with my son drawing the monsters that I would be fighting — another is something that pulled from my simple hometown roots as a girl growing up on a farm in Wisconsin: that I would be 4-H girl: that I would dedicate “my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living – for my club, my community, my country and my world.” and my costume would be just a t-shirt with the 4-H clover on the front and pictures of head, heart, hands on the back.

Another idea is that I would be the “Scient-artist” — and my superpowers would be science and art, and I would use them to help the world. My costume would be my studio pants all covered in paint with a white lab coat, lab goggles, a palette and paintbrushes.

I was always good at math and science and the other thing I am doing right now is taking classes to hopefully become a physician’s assistant – so hopefully I WILL use that power for good too in this world— as you can see I find that we have powers already within us and it’s about how we use them. I guess I haven’t thought that much lately about if I myself can fly….

3. Superheroes have a history of empowering cancer patients and promoting awareness (among them the viral super-heroine self-check posters featuring cat woman and wonderwoman). What’s the appeal and benefit of using superheroes in relation to cancer, in your own perspective?

Superheroines urge you to Self-Examine in these Mozambican Breast Cancer PSAs by Maisa Chaves.

Superheroines urge you to Self-Examine in these Mozambican Breast Cancer PSAs by Maisa Chaves.

This project, for me, is really just one focused application of the much broader concept of the Everyday Superhero portrait. Over the long haul, I believe I will end up working with people from all walks of life with this concept and help them find the superhero in themselves.

But for people affected by breast cancer, there are a few things I believe are special for them. One, we are lifting up for them what they have the opportunity to recognize themselves as going through the universal hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell: “An individual is called away from “normal life” and asked to go on an adventure away from society where they will face a great danger and undergo an extreme ordeal. If successful, they return to society bearing some treasure they are able to share with their community and they are celebrated and honored as the hero they have become”

We know that for all people facing a life-threatening illness, you cannot assume what “victory” is or what the “outcome” will be. But if they retain a victorious spirit, that is something that cancer cannot take.

Even so, we are also hoping that connecting with inner strength in a fun and unintimidating way will contribute to benefits of positive emotions, which is something research is finding can have significant impact on outcomes – in health, in life measures and in relationships.

"Wonder Woman Katy" from The Breast Cancer Superhero Project

Meet Wonder Woman Katy from The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project

At a time when most of the decisions they have to make are gut wrenching, it is also a chance for these women to be in control of something that is limited only by their imagination – at least in their minds (and on canvas!) they get to be immensely powerful and capable of fantastic feats – and they get to look however they want and wear whatever they want. I give them the gift of coming up with the visual that tells their story the way they want it told.

4. How do you select the women for this project?

Well the project is still young.I started with women I knew, but we are now starting to work with people who come to us from coming through the studio and finding out about the project.

Lisa Phoenix Rising - the real-life inspiration (right) with her daughter (left).

Meet Lisa Phoenix Rising – the real-life inspiration (right) with her daughter (left).

In the future, it will depend on funding – how many we can choose from those nominated by loved ones, and how many may be sponsored by community organizations who want me to work with the hero they want to raise up and celebrate. We do have a nomination form and an interview form for potential subjects.

5. Does it take long to develop the superhero’s character and how involved are the patients/survivors in the process itself?

Oh, it’s very much about the process that each subject goes through.

We do not hurry it, it can take anywhere from 3-6 months from the first conversation to the last stroke of paint. I want them to take their time and be very comfortable with each step along the way.

We have a first meeting where I ask a few questions and listen a LOT. I have to find out about them – who they are, their cancer journey — that is key —- and then we turn the page by starting the process of re-imagining themselves after cancer. It really is an organic process individualized for each woman. Some come up with a strong simple concept right away, some take more time to really ponder things. Then we get to talk about boots! (and hair, and pose, and costume… it’s fun and meaningful all at the same time).

Wonder Woman Katy and the real life inspiration!

Wonder Woman Katy and the real-life inspiration!

6. Several of the superheroes you’ve developed have unique superpowers closely linked to the cancer experience, like Radiation Diva. Do you find it makes them more relatable to other cancer patients? Please share why.

Well, Jill (AKA Radiation Diva) was one of the women who tipped the scale for me and made me know I HAD to do this project. She – totally independently of knowing I was even doing something with superheroes in the studio, sent out posts during her radiation every day saying “such and such song was playing on the sound system during my treatment today -what superpower do you think that gave me?” — and people would write back and say “you got the power to make people walk the line – ” or “you got the power to make animals strike curious poses” or “you got the power to get Jessie’s girl” – so now she has her Radiation Playlist with all the songs and her list of superpowers she got FROM her radiation.

That just blew me away. You are going through cancer and THIS is what you are doing with it.

Yes, we DO hope that others going down a similar road, seeing these images and reading the stories about how these women have responded to cancer will open up their minds to options they have to respond to their own situation differently.

"She wanted her hospital bracelets transformed into “Wonder Woman” style bracelets, and now she’s deflecting those darn cancer bullets – big time!" - Meet Radiation Diva from the Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project. 

“She wanted her hospital bracelets transformed into “Wonder Woman” style bracelets, and now she’s deflecting those darn cancer bullets – big time!” – Meet Radiation Diva from the Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project.

What’s different about this project also is we are taking real individual people and giving them access to this superhero persona development, it’s not a superhero that is far off in the distance and outside themselves.

The other thing that is different is that we aren’t just talking about “fight like a girl” or focusing on the “battle” part. We are opening this up to letting their imaginations play with however they would be and whatever they would be able to do if there were no limits – and it’s much more playful and fun than just talking about battles and winning.

They are rededicating themselves to whatever cause they want to use their powers for – like Suzi Kazal Forst, who found joy and justice rose to the top and is now using her powers of humor to bring joy to the world and going on international justice missions to help widows in Uganda.

7. How have patients/survivors reacted to their character depictions and to the project itself (in general)? Please share any interesting stories or anecdotes, if possible.

There is something profoundly powerful that has happened not only for the superheroes, but also for their friends and family, their medical care providers and other people who have been through cancer or know someone who has been through cancer. It’s something that touches everyone seeing people they can relate to depicted in this way.

Katy Tessman Stanoch, AKA Wonder Woman Katy ( says that becoming Wonder Woman represented her return after the awful experience that cancer was – like it is for most people. She has gone on to write a book to help children understand what is happening when their mothers are going through breast cancer. Her book, “Our Mama is a Beautiful Garden” helps instill hope and understanding at a time when things can be bleak and scary. Her life is entwining with her new persona in big ways.

Meet Ruby Runner from the Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project (Photo Credit: Doug Webb)

Meet Ruby Runner from the Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project (Photo Credit: Doug Webb)

Anne Drow, AKA Ruby Runner, recently said this:

Anne “Ruby Runner” Drow: “When Barbara first asked me to be part of this project, it was almost like a dream come true. I was getting tired of being just someone who suffered because of the ravages of cancer. I wanted to be more than someone who survived.

I wanted the inner me to still shine through, and becoming the Ruby Runner gave me that opportunity. We have all changed in big ways and small. Some of the changes you can see, others you can feel. Some days I can move mountains, other days I could take on a newborn kitten and lose.

But, though the “new normal” is not my choice, I’m still here, I’m still fighting the good fight and still making people smile. So, it’s all good… No, I still can’t run and run and never get tired, but when the days are long and painful, I can look at her and know she is in there biding her time, waiting to come out and run!”  

8. What message(s) do you hope to send across to breast cancer patients through this project?

Basically, we hope to help inspire and celebrate the heroic nature of individuals affected by breast cancer.

By re-imagining themselves as playfully powerful, we hope to help breast cancer patients reconnect with inner resources they may have forgotten they had.

We also hope to create more opportunities for people to experience positive emotions and genuine connections with others during difficult times, and to help friends, family and community share in celebrating and honoring people they love and care about.

9. In a country, like Lebanon, where people struggle to talk openly about their cancer experience, do you find that relating it to superheroes and illustrations like yours helps bypass the taboo by giving it a different dimension? 

What is kind of magical about this project is that it is instantly approachable, playful and fun, at the same time moving and heartfelt. The underlying messages are definitely delivered and understood.

Everyone knows at least one person who has been through breast cancer (that’s too many people by the way) – and they all come away thinking about that person and what they went through – sometimes in a different way.

If that person is still alive, they might think about telling this person “I saw breast cancer survivors as superheroes today, and I think you are a superhero too –” it’s a way to change the conversation.

10. What are your plans for The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project? Where do you see it heading?

There are many dreams for this project – but most of them will be dependent on the funds we can raise.

We want to go into different communities and serve them in whatever way works best for them – to bring the show with the paintings and the stories as a way to bring hope and encouragement and inspiration — we hope to offer additional art therapy “Show us your Superhero” workshops for patient support groups, family members and care providers so each community can create its own hall of heroes which will stay with them long after the paintings go to the next town — and of course the availability of commissioning their own superhero portrait to raise up their own hero to honor and have the large scale painting to be a permanent addition to their hospital or other community site reminding them of their own success story in future years.

Inspiring women at a Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project exhibition.

Inspiring women at a Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project exhibition.

We also are just starting the process of one of the other long term goals of the project: to offer the use of the images to help raise money for local patient support programs and potentially someday to help fund research looking into prevention and cause. Regla de Oro Gallery in Minneapolis, MN is currently seeking sponsorship to create merchandise (tote bags, Tshirts etc) to sell to raise revenue for the project and will donate a portion of proceeds to Angel Foundation which provides financial assistance and other support to cancer patients and their families here in Minnesota. The show will be at Regla de Oro March 17-April 26 with a fundraiser reception for Angel Foundation on March 21!

To find out more about the project and the superheroes, please visit “The Breast Cancer Superhero Portrait Project” Website and Facebook Page.


So, since we’re on the topic of superheroes: Which superhero do YOU relate to most or would like to be immortalized as – and WHY? We would love to hear your answers! Please share in the comments section below 🙂

Flashback. Then Forward.

Written by Lara Safar

Today 4 years ago, I learned something that changed my life forever.
Today 4 years ago, I had discovered a piece of me I never knew existed.
Today 4 years ago, I said shit and actually felt it.
Today 4 years ago, I understood how unknown the future is.
Today 4 years ago, I had to break the heart of the people I love most.
Today 4 years ago, I cried my balls out.

But all that was 4 years ago. It was when I thought that that piece of me was toxic.
When actually – that little piece (little but powerful piece) made me taste survival. It also presented me to everything I love today.

So today I’m thankful.
Today I’m hopeful.
Today is a new day. And I hope many more of those will keep comin’.
And today – I call every woman out there to listen to her body if it ever cries, to always have hope, and most importantly, to keep that killer smile.
Because damn what a killer that smile is.

Lara-FlashbackthenForward

The Un-accidental Accident

Written by Jennifer Kanaan

When I first decided to write this, I thought I would know exactly what I wanted to say, but it turned out, I didn’t. It has taken me a couple of trials to get it out on virtual paper but I kept trying because it is important for me that my message reaches the people who may need it most.

The story I would like to share with you started about two years ago when I had a terrible karting accident in the Netherlands.

Although the accident itself was minor and I was able to walk out of the car, I felt a pain in my ankle. I didn’t want to go to the hospital at first but friends and colleagues insisted to be on the safe side. I entered the ER and did not leave the hospital for the next 10 weeks.

Jennifer before the accident that would change her life.

Jennifer before the accident that would change her life.

The accident had resulted in a ruptured pancreas and a broken ankle. Although I was in indescribable pain, I had no idea (at the time) of the severity of the injuries I had encountered.

As I learned more about the impact of these injuries, I began falling deeper and deeper into an unwillingness to fight for my life.

I was really struggling to accept what was happening to me and kept asking myself: how did I end up here? what did I do to deserve this? This made me very angry – and mostly, at myself! It was so much harder for the doctors and everyone else around me to help me when I felt this way. After all, how could they help me if I was unwilling to help myself?

Accepting and getting over that anger was the first and most important step towards my recovery. The sooner you do that, the sooner you start allowing the treatment (any type of treatment) to work.

After two months of excruciating pain and many repeated medical procedures, I decided to return home (to Lebanon) with the idea that being surrounded by friends and family would help me want to get better. And that slowly worked out.

The next major step in the recovery process was accepting that I had to go through surgery. The type of injury I had was rare and the type of surgery that would help save me was even rarer. The surgery had to be performed by an experienced surgeon and under the most calculated conditions otherwise I could very easily end up with diabetes at the young age of 25.

Being home was helping me heal. I was getting much better than when I had been in the hospital in the Netherlands, to the point where I was told to start preparing for the surgery (mentally and otherwise).

And because I was not mentally-ready for this, I desperately wanted to find a non-surgical solution, which is why I sought out the best gastroenterologist in the country. However, by the time I got to his office, I was screaming of pain. I couldn’t even stand up anymore. After a few exams, we unfortunately discovered that my health status was back at square one. It was as if nothing had changed since I was being treated in the Netherlands. I had to be hospitalized, again.

I did not believe how strongly you could affect your own health until that moment.

For some reason, I did not want to get better and when they told me that I was finally medically ready for surgery, I subconsciously allowed my health to regress in order to simply avoid it.

Nothing happens by accident, not even accidents. They are there for you to learn what you need to from them and move on. They will keep on happening until you do.

I obviously needed to learn another lesson at this stage to be able to move on, and that lesson was that your mind can affect your body in ways you wouldn’t think possible. I generally fear change and believe it or not, I found a certain comfort in being sick and stuck in the hospital. My fear of getting back to a normal life made me realize that I was avoiding getting better because that would mean back to independence and responsibility – and that was scaring me.

The moment I was hospitalized this time, I had to stop eating food in order to allow my pancreas to rest. And this, under my doctor’s orders, was until further notice or until I was ready for surgery. Out of everything I had gone through up until then, that was the hardest thing I had to do. There I was: in pain gain, stuck in the hospital, and to top it off, not even allowed to eat!

At this point, you might be asking yourself: why is this article being posted on a cancer support blog?

Well, because besides the steps towards recovery being similar for anyone going through a traumatizing experience, a few of the experiences I went through actually helped me relate to some of the challenges cancer patients face.

The three months I had to spend without eating and taking nutrition from a bag took their toll on me. Needless to say, I was losing weight dramatically and my hair with it. Slowly, I started cutting my hair shorter and shorter until even the water drainage pipes at home got clogged. Just running my hand through my hair, I would wind up with a huge clump of hair within my fingers.

It was getting exhausting to do any kind of activity and I was starting to see my bones. At this point, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain so I decided to do what I never would have thought of doing: shaving my head.

Jenny03

The photograph Jennifer shared on Facebook after shaving her head.

For the first couple of days, I felt judgment in the eyes of others. Those who didn’t know me (or what I had gone through), thought I had cancer and were staring at me with pity. I would only leave the house to go to the hospital, but even there, people would look at you, making you feel empty of anything except the “disease” you were carrying.

I was feeling it, even though I did not have cancer.

At first, I opted to cover my shaved head until my friends convinced me that I actually looked good like that. To show my revolt against people’s judgement, I took a picture of myself and uploaded it onto Facebook.

The support I received from my friends was really heart-warming. From this point forward, I walked with pride – even along the corridors of the many hospitals I had to visit when I began looking for a surgeon qualified, decent and honest enough to operate on me. I was ready to go through with it.

I ended up getting the surgery done soon-after and I am now in much, much better health – even better than before the accident!

Jennifer boldly embracing her new look.

Jennifer boldly embracing her new look.

A very important part of the story, which I forgot to mention earlier, was what finally motivated me to get better and fight for my life: at the beginning of this experience, I saw the whole accident as a dark period in my life that was not going to get any better. I was convinced that everything in this world was evil and that there was no reason to put any hope in the goodness of mankind.. until I met a doctor who had faith in me and who also put up with my depression and mood changes. He was, and still is, one of the most humane, honest and dedicated persons I have ever met.

That was the moment I regained hope in humanity.

He prepared me for the surgery I was so-dreading, stood by me and walked all the way with me until he was sure I had the best possible surgery outcome.

Now, two years after the accident and one year after surgery, I thank god for making me go through this experience as it has changed me in so many ways and helped me know myself better. I am a much better person because of this and this is the only way you should see any negative experiences in your life.

Celebrating one year since surgery - she did it!

Celebrating one year since the surgery – she did it!

For someone who had no idea what she wanted to write, I think I have said enough and hope these messages stay with you. Let go of anger and fear, accept the pain as it is the only way for you to release it and, most importantly, forgive yourself because this is the only way to heal – both mentally and physically.

Jennifer now works as a Social Media Specialist in Beirut and blogs regularly about Nutrition and Holistic Health on New Trends in Nutrition. Follow her on Facebook too.

Hope Not Fear: Finding the Silver Lining

Most women dread losing their hair and having to wear a wig during their treatment. It’s really hard to accept losing such an integral part of your appearance and femininity – even if temporary. An added concern is how others will perceive that hair loss and treat you as a result of it. To add a fresh perspective to this important and sensitive subject, we conducted an interview with Cheri who we first met a few days.

What stood us for us immediately upon meeting Cheri is her refreshing attitude to wearing wigs, adding her own creative approach to making the experience more fun in light of a difficult situation. She shares all about her diagnosis, the daily ups and the downs, on her blog “Hope Not Fear“.

A strong woman worth getting to know a little further, here’s our interview with Cheri and we hope it inspires you as much as it inspired us:

  • Tell us a little a bit about yourself and your blog.

My name is Cheri Lewis. I am 38 years old and I live on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. I am happily married to an amazing, supportive man. We have no children, but we have 2 dogs (who are like my children).

In July 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I created my blog “Hope Not Fear” to keep my friends and family updated on my journey. It’s been a way to share with the world all the good and the bad. It allows me to express how I’m feeling throughout my fight. I hope that by sharing my journey, I can help others fighting their own battles find hope, stay positive and realize they are not alone in this.

  • How did you react when you were first diagnosed with breast cancer?

When I was 20 years old, the University of British Columbia approached my family to do some genetic research on our blood line because my family has had a large number of breast and ovarian cancer cases (going back generations). They ended up finding a mutated gene in our blood line: the BRCA gene. This was an amazing discovery as now women all over the world can get tested for this gene to know how high a risk they have in getting breast and/or ovarian cancer.

I tested positive for both BRCA 1 & 2 –  which is breast and ovarian. I had the option of removing my breasts and ovaries at that time but as I was only 21 years old, I wasn’t ready to make that kind of decision. I was screened every 6 months through mammograms and MRIs after that.

Although I knew for several years that I had an increased likelihood of getting cancer, nothing could quite prepare me for the day my doctor informed me that I had breast cancer.

I stayed composed at first (perhaps it hadn’t really set in) and asked lots of questions: “What was our next step?” “How far had it progressed?” etc. It wasn’t until my sister hugged me that I broke down in tears.

The weeks and months that followed seemed unreal. I was mostly in a daze. The scariest part for me was when I had my first appointment with my chemotherapy oncologist. After discussing my options, he started explaining survival rates. The numbers and reality of the situation really hit home that day. This shocked and scared me because not once before did I think I wouldn’t survive this. But I will survive this.

Cheri meeting with surgeons following her diagnosis (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

Cheri meeting with surgeons following her breast cancer diagnosis (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

I choose to stay positive. I really believe that positivity and hope cures all. If your thoughts are negative, your body will not respond as well to treatment. I was given this life because I am strong enough to live it!

  • For many women, a big fear upon hearing that they have to do undergo chemotherapy is the impending hair loss. Was that of particular concern to you?

Yes – I think it is a HUGE concern for every woman.

It seems silly that hair would be the biggest concern. They inform you of the many other scary side-effects, like sores in the mouth, menopause, finger nails lifting-off (the list goes on and on), but the one that sucks the most is the hair loss.

Many people have said to me “It’s just hair, no big deal…” – I don’t see them shaving their heads. They also say “It’ll grow back” – yes, eventually it will but going through all the emotional turmoil that comes with being diagnosed with cancer and then having that somewhat-alien reflection in the mirror reminding you everyday [that you’re sick] is very challenging.

For men, it is also different. Many men live daily with a shaved or bald head. They wouldn’t really get looked twice, but when people see a bald woman, they instantly see a cancer patient and I don’t like the look of pity in their eyes.

Don’t pity me: I am a warrior and shaving my head was just a part of preparing for battle.

  • Have you been able to go bald in public since starting treatment?

Only my close friends and family have seen me bald. At home, I don’t wear a wig or scarf, but if someone I don’t know that well comes over, I will throw something on my head. It’s more for them not to feel awkward than for me.

A few days after I’d shaved my head and completed my second chemo treatment, I went out to lunch with my sister. I hadn’t purchased any wigs yet and was just wearing a toque. Then, we started talking about exposing my bald, pale, shiny head to the whole restaurant. We giggled about it but I got so nervous!

It was funny how I could be brave enough to battle cancer but too afraid to show my bald head to strangers in public.

After a few more silly, nervous giggles and a few deep breaths, my sister counted to three and I removed my toque. I sat through my entire lunch bald. I felt more empowered than ever that day because I had conquered a fear. I felt that I can really do anything!

  •  You recently shared photographs of yourself with the different wigs that you’re wearing during this period, each reflecting a different side of your personality (or so we presumed). How did you choose these wigs and how many do you currently own?

At first, I purchased two high-quality wigs from a local wig shop. I wanted some expert advice on fit, comfort and to have different options to choose from. “Ginger” is synthetic; what you see is what you get. She cannot be styled. I chose her because of the fun color.

All the other wig options in the shop were pretty “safe” styles, and in my perspective, boring (I have always had fun with my hair). “Mary-Anne” was my splurge – she wasn’t cheap. She is 100% real human hair. I can wash, curl, flat-iron, cut and color it – anything I could do if I still had my own hair.

I purchased four more wigs online from Hair Sisters. This was the only website I found with some fun, funky-styled wigs that were also very reasonably-priced. I wasn’t sure how “real” these wigs would look as they are synthetic and sometimes synthetic hair can be very shiny (plastic-looking). Even if they look a little more “fake” than my more expensive wigs, they are fun with wild colors so that’s fine.

I have many options now. If you could see my closet and my huge selection of shoes, you would understand my need for more than a few hair choices.

Source: Hope Not Fear

Some of Cheri’s wigs and their personas (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

Anything that can bring excitement and fun to a scary situation is worth it.

Rather than be sad about facing my day in public, I get to have some fun deciding which “personality” I wish to wear that day. Each wig is a personality and a piece of my own personality.

  • Which one’s your favorite? And why?

Mmm… I’m not sure. I really like them all!

I would have to say it’s a tie between “Ginger” and “Mona”. My friends and family love “Ginger” the most. They request I wear her the most but sometimes she is a hassle as her hair is pretty long and tends to get tangled up. On the other hand, “Mona” is a super-short style so she’s very easy to wear and never gets in the way. I can wear big scarves around my neck without having it compete with the hair.

Image Source

Cheri, second from the left, is wearing “Ginger” here (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

I have had random strangers compliment me on these two wigs, asking who my hairdresser is because they love the cut and color. I have them all fooled!

  • How do you decide which one you’ll wear each day?

Having so many choices is sometimes a bad thing. It makes it harder to decide.

Sometimes it depends on the weather conditions: wind and rain can reek havoc on certain wigs. It also depends on my outfit for the day, where I’m going and what I’m doing. For example, “Ginger” being the fun red color that she is, can clash with certain outfits. If I am hosting a dinner, I stick to my shorter styles as I don’t want to have a fire hazard attached to my head.

  • Has taking this approach helped you cope better with the physical side-effects of chemotherapy and the way you look? 

Yes, as I mentioned earlier, anything that makes you feel better when going through so much is definitely worth it. You can be seen in public and not get pitied just because you’re a cancer patient.

It’s also exciting to choose a style for each day.

Getting complimented on your “hair” is therapeutic in a strange way.

  • Would you encourage other women to do the same? And why?

Definitely if it helps them feel better but to each her own. Some women embrace “the bald” and feel powerful – like that day I went bald in the restaurant. I felt powerful too, but for me, that was more of a hurdle to cross. I may do it again one day.

In my case, feeling a little more “normal” on the outside makes me feel a little more “normal” on the inside too.

With my body going through so much because of the chemo, something as seemingly “trivial” or “vain” (to some) as hair, can be uplifting and fun, improving a crappy situation. When faced with a life-changing hurdle, try to make the best of it by finding a silver lining.

  • What advice would you give to a fellow breast cancer patient reading this?

My biggest advice is to choose hope, not fear.

Cheri's motto in her fight against breast cancer (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

Cheri’s motto in her fight against breast cancer (Image Source: Hope Not Fear)

Being afraid is, of course, a natural first reaction. I have been there too, but fear is a cancer in and of itself. Being sad and afraid will not help you heal. At the same time, it is also o.k. to be angry sometimes and to have bad days but always remember that life is to short to wallow in sadness.

As horrible as cancer is, it has had a positive impact on my life. In the last few months, I have discovered more about myself than I ever thought I could. I don’t sweat the small things anymore. I now appreciate the little life experiences that I may have overlooked before. I am very thankful for myself, my strength and positivity.

My relationship with my husband has also grown much stronger than ever and I’m overwhelmed by the support of my friends and family. I have also made new friends (some I haven’t even met in person) with other warriors and survivors that have shared with me their battles. We’ve laughed about the coincidences and the humorous sides of chemo and reconstruction.

My final advice: Be strong. Stay strong. Lean on your loved ones. Be a warrior. Fight like a girl! Find the silver lining. Enjoy life. Don’t let this get you down. You were given this life because you are strong enough to live it.

If I can do it, so can you!

Follow Cheri’s journey on her blog “Hope Not Fear” and feel free to share with others who might benefit from her powerful message.