Turban Style and Guitars in the Chemo Room: Lea and Jessica’s Stories

Jessica and Lea are both young Hodgkin’s Disease survivors and met each other through our Sisters-in-Pink peer matching support program. The bond that formed between them was instantaneous and extended beyond their similar diagnosis.

While no two people will ever go through such an experience in the same way, some things were very clearly similar (such as their positive attitudes and mutual love for travel) and even the things that were different (such as how they coped with their hair loss) only brought them closer.

Read more about their experience and hear their individual stories in this shared interview with them. We hope you are as inspired as we are by the incredible journeys of these two beautiful ladies:

1. You were both diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease – a type of cancer that many people probably don’t know much about or may never have even heard of before. How much did you yourself know about it before your diagnosis and what did you learn along the way? 

Jessica: Hodgkin’s Disease was completely alien to me!

Both my doctor and my father (who is also a doctor) told me more about it. I found out that Hodgkin’s is a friendly, curable cancer that eventually helped me grow so much on a personal and spiritual level.

JessicaPetScan

Lea: Astonishingly, my uncle was diagnosed with the same condition a while back despite there not being a hereditary link. He was diagnosed with stage 4 Non-Hodgkin with a need of bone marrow transplant and is fully recovered today, which was far from being my case.

To tell you the truth, I knew it existed, but I needed it explained to me in a way since I wasn’t diagnosed with the same lymphoma, but with a particular one considered to have a higher treatment success rate. I had every reason to be full of positivity.

And of course, knowing my uncle had been through it all before made it feel like I would confide in him.

2. In one sentence, what was the first thought or reaction when your doctor told you the news?

Jessica: My hair…

Lea: Actually, I read the news on the doctor’s lips, while isolated in the imaging room. ‘’Tumor’’ used to be a big word, but right then I knew it was never going to be the same.

So, to describe it in a symbol, it’s the “no voice input button” on the keyboard.

3. No parent wants to hear their child has cancer and no doubt it’s even harder when the person fighting it is that young. How did your parents react/cope during this period?

Jessica: My parents dealt perfectly with the news and succeeded to hide their concerns and worries. They both took amazing care of me, but made sure not to suffocate me.

Lea: No one is ever prepared to hear that their child has a life-threatening illness. At the very least, they knew major changes will occur. They did the very best to give me strength and help me overcome this challenge in the best conditions.

4. What were the best and worst things anyone said or did for you during this period?

Jessica: Turning my chemo room to a very safe and familiar environment where a friend sang and played the guitar, and another held me to sleep (since it was impossible to lay my head while wearing the heavy scalp).

The worst thing that has been said to me was: “How would you know what fun really means? You spend your days sleeping” I took it very badly and actually couldn’t sleep at all that night..

Lea: The best thing I was told during this period was by a colleague that I once randomly saw in a pub: ‘Lea, I love your new style! Did you shave your head for a cause?’ I have plenty of other stories..

As for the worst thing done, it was having a person smoke right next to me. It was a sign of major disrespect.

5. How did you deal with the hair loss resulting from chemo? 

Jessica: I didn’t have to. I used the scalp cooling system: a scalp cap with a temperature of -6 degrees that prevents or lowers hair loss.

The scalp experience honestly made my chemo sessions harder, I kept feeling sick because of the difference of temperatures between my body and my head. But the results were amazing – I kept all of my hair!

Lea: I was put in touch with a Hodgkin’s disease survivor, who was a great inspiration. She encouraged me to shave my head early on as it is less traumatic when the hair begins to fall.

It was hard for my parents, which is why I bought a wig to comfort them. But with time, they got used to the turban/hat idea and agreed that wearing colorful headwear made me look glamorous. I felt more comfortable and natural.

It wasn’t always easy to find different styles of turbans in Lebanon, so I would order them online (from London and the US). I learned how to tie a turban through Youtube with Ascia Akf. I think it’s one of the simplest and most flattering turban styles.

6. How did you manage to juggle work during your treatment?

Jessica: Being a freelancer made it much easier for me. After my chemo session, I rested for 3-4 days and recharged my energy to complete the work I had before the next session.

Lea: I am blessed to have been able to keep my daily routine as close to normal as possible. I was able to incorporate my chemotherapy within my work schedule.

My life didn’t really change other than not being able to do several sports activities or traveling. Maybe I wasn’t as energetic as I would have liked to be, but I managed. It was an expected part of the recovery process: the fatigue from chemotherapy was going to get better over time, the hair was going to grow back and the fear of recurrence was going to subside with the passing of the months.

I kept busy going out with friends, dancing, jogging and getting on with my life again. I knew that soon enough my life was going to get back to normal. If not the old normal, then for sure a new one and my life will resume, despite cancer and beyond it, so why put my life on hold?

7. Did your love life, or perspective on relationships, get affected during this period?

Jessica: My lover didn’t leave my side. I am forever grateful to the beautiful person who brought colors to my life during my tough days.

Lea: My love life wasn’t really affected much, but my priorities in life have changed during my cancer journey. It made me focus more on the important things in life, such as family and other relationships.

8. Cancer is far from funny business, but humor can certainly lighten the mood. Were there any funny moments or stories that came out of this experience? 

Jessica: So many actually!

One of them is when I used to get paranoid every time I showered because of the amount of hair I would lose while showering (which turned out to be normal), so my sisters used to send me pictures of hair they’re losing after their showers to let me know my hair loss is normal. (Is this too weird?)

Lea: Right before my last chemo session, I organized a Cancer Farewell at my place under the theme of “Kissing Cancer Away”. The goal was to gather all the people that stood by my side and supported me throughout my journey.

All the content was customized with kisses (the wall of fame, Instagram booth, cocktail glasses, napkins, balloons, pins, cookies, etc..)

KissCancerAway_01

KissCancerAway_02

9. What drew you to take part in the Sisters-in-Pink program?

Jessica: Once my treatment was over, people around me chose to forget and not talk about it anymore. But cancer literally changed my life and I felt the urge to talk to someone who would understand what it’s like to be cancer-free.

Lea: I feel I have a lot to give. I was always socially-active and engaged with different NGOs, but my focus today is on Cancer and it definitely needs to be put into perspective.

10. How was the first meeting with each other?

Jessica: I was very nervous before meeting Lea, but once we sat together, everything went so smoothly and we talked for a couple of hours.

The most important thing that we have in common is that we both chose to take the best out of this experience. And I was very happy she shared her inspiring hair loss experience with me.

Lea: Meeting Jessica was something I was looking forward to as I really needed to share my experience with someone who’d been through the same disease. We realized we had a lot in common, even though some things were quite different, such as the treatment methods.

Overall, we both reacted the same way: we both recovered and are laid back.. and we both enjoy life a little bit more each day.

11. What do you wish more people knew or understood about Hodgkin’s Disease (or Cancer, in general)?

Jessica: It’s OKAY to talk about it! You don’t have to avoid asking us questions; this won’t make us any less sick. I wish people knew that cancer might be the worst thing that happened to some, but it can also be the best thing that happened for others.

Lea: If you have to pick one, this is the one to pick. No taboos or clichés on the topic.

12. What single piece of advise would you give someone who just got heard the phrase “You have cancer”?

Jessica: You don’t always have to be strong; it’s ok to crash sometimes. But know that you will come out of this experience richer than you’ve ever thought you’d be.

Lea: Suffering from this atrocity is a life experience. It’s fighting a good fight.

13. Any life-altering realizations as a result of beating cancer?

Jessica: I’m grateful for every single thing and person in my life, every moment every day.

Lea: More to come.

14. What are the top three things on your bucket list today?

Jessica: Go on a spiritual trip, help people with cancer stay as positive as they can be, and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Lea:

1. One of my main concerns is to enforce an anti-smoking law in Lebanon.

2. Coaching, coaching, coaching.

3. Traveling.

15. Describe what being a survivor means to you in one word.

Jessica: Will.

Lea: Thankful.

Photographs provided are courtesy of Jessica and Lea respectively. 

Advertisements

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!

PPPPImage_StitchSession2

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!

Interview: “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

Alyscia Cunningham is a US-based portrait and editorial photographer who recently launched a crowd-funding campaign for “I Am More than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”.

“I Am More than My Hair” is an awareness/social-change photography project that focuses on the beauty of being bald and follows Alyscia’s first book “Feminine Transitions” featuring a series of portraits that reveal the natural beauty of women of diverse ages and backgrounds without make-up on. Alyscia’s work celebrates natural beauty while also inviting us to challenge what beauty – real beauty – means to us, even when hair is lost.

Amy

Amy – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

We reached out to Alyscia to find out more about her project and share her insight throughout this experience below:

1. In October 2013, you decided to make the cut and donate your hair to a cancer organization. This move, as well as the reactions of those around you, raised many questions for you about beauty standards. What were some of the notable reactions you received after cutting your hair so short and how did this inspire your latest project “I am More than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”?

I’ve often heard, “A woman’s hair is her beauty” and “Your hair is your strength” from two different communities. I completely disagree with both statements.

It got to a point where I would tell myself “I am not my hair”. That single thought gave birth the the idea of my project I Am More Than My Hair, which is a response to that fact that I wasn’t my hair.

On that day, 16” [approx. 41 cm] of my locks were cut by Johnny Wright, Michelle Obama’s hair stylist, and donated for cancer patients. I’ve always had long hair and this was the first time I had ever cut my hair into a short style. I’ve wanted to cut it off once I realized my consistent head colds after swimming were related to the heavy weight of my locks not drying in time. Two years later, I was informed about the “Big Chop” and I gladly volunteered my hair to be donated.

2. You’ve been interested in beauty and addressing our relationship with it for a while now. Your previously published “Feminine Transitions” book features women without make-up and highlights the struggle of being vulnerable behind a lens. How are your two projects linked and how are they different in your perspective?

Both “Feminine Transitions” and “I Am More Than My Hair” relate to each other because they deal mostly with vulnerability. The participants were required to shed a layer to be photographed, whether it was make-up or a wig. The immediate difference that comes to mind is the subject matter.

However, there are more similarities than there are differences.

3. Tell us about your journey driving throughout Washington D.C. photographing girls and women for “Bald and Beautiful Me”. What stories came out of this experience and did you face any obstacles taking the photographs?

It has been a wonderful experience visiting new places within the DC metro area and meeting women I may not have bumped into otherwise. All the photos were taken outdoors or in a natural lighting environment: a favorite park, the backyard, by their bedroom window..

I wanted everyone to choose a location they connected with most.

I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me

Tamela – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

Most women opened up, telling me their personal stories about their experience with hair loss. Some shed tears. Others simply accepted it for what it was. Either way, it is a blessing to connect with women from all walks of life.

4. You have photographed more than 35 women of different backgrounds, ages and ethnicities for your project so far. What were common themes you encountered and how did your definition of beauty change as a result of those interactions?

My first reaction was noticing so much more than the hair of bald women and girls. I really got a chance to see the beauty in their features, their smile.

Hair not being there was less of a distraction. They had a natural radiance. It was raw beauty in all colors, shapes and forms.

Sala

Sala – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

5. What message would you like to get across to women struggling with insecurities about their beauty? What would you tell your younger self today?

I always tell women that we are all uniquely beautiful. Don’t look to the media for an answer to beauty. The media bombards us with Photoshopped images and Photoshop is a lie.

I would tell my younger self to look for my worth within myself, and not from what others say to or about me.

6. In Lebanon (and much of the Middle East), beauty standards are quite high and this add lots of pressure on women to constantly keep up appearances. As such, when a woman loses her hair as a result of cancer treatment, it is even more difficult for her to cope and the majority will avoid being seen or opt to wear wigs during this period. This is also related to the taboo linked to cancer still being witnessed in our society, but the issue of beauty and social perception remains. What insight can you shed for women living in our part of the world on this issue and what kind of awareness do you think is needed to help overcome it?

In no way do I tell a woman going through cancer treatment how to feel. What I can offer is encouragement. I will do my best to let her know that she is beautiful despite her temporary (or permanent) hair loss. I can also offer a connection with another women on this side of the world going through the same experience, who can also encourage her.

I also make it a point to speak about the media’s view of beauty as compared to reality. Showing non-Photoshopped and Photoshopped has a huge impact on our self-perception.

From my experience, real pictures of well-known people in the media make the idea of beauty less threatening. The media sells insecurity. I use that outlet as a tool to sell positive self-imagery, showing individuals as everyday ordinary people.

Erika - Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham's photography book "I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me"

Erika – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

7. You recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a documentary you’d like to develop based on “Bald and Beautiful Me” How was the experience for you and do you plan to relaunch the campaign in the future?

Unfortunately, there were complications with Kickstarter so I decided to launch my crowdfunding campaign on YouCaring.com. My goal is to raise $25,228 in order to be able to produce 1,000 copies of the book and 500 copies of the DVD documentary. Many people don’t understand that this small number of production still takes a great deal of work and dedication, which in turn takes money.

The money raised will also go towards the marking cost of producing both the book and DVD. At first, I was recording the stories of the participants for my crowd-funding campaign but decided to actually compile them into a documentary.

There stories are so personal and heartfelt that I had to share them along with the book.

8. In closing, please continue the statement in your own words: “I am more than my hair and/because …”

… my hair does not determine my strength or ability.

Jameelah

Jameelah – Photograph from Alyscia Cunningham’s photography book “I Am More Than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me”

Keep posted for more on “I Am More than My Hair: Bald and Beautiful Me” here.

We’d like to turn to you now: How would you continue the statement “I am more than my hair and/because …”Please share in the comments section below.

Lara’s Story: Two Years Later

We first interviewed Lara two years ago but even with the time that’s passed since, her story continues to inspire until today – as has been proven with the tremendous response her post has garnered in the past week when we re-shared the original post. And it comes at a perfectly-fitting time with breast cancer month in full swing and the need for the right awareness ever-present. Nothing gets the message across better than hearing it from someone who has not only fought but beat cancer because of early detection.

For those of you who have been closely following Lara’s story and are wondering how she’s doing today, we did the following interview to share with you the latest chapter in her ever-inspiring story. Life may be going one way once you’ve just completed treatment, but how much (or little) do things change when one year, two years, or more have passed?

To get more insight on this subject, we posed a few questions to this very inspirational survivor and here’s what she had to say:

1. In our first interview, you introduced yourself as Lara, the “twenty-seven-year-old breast cancer survivor”. How has this introduction evolved since and how do you introduce yourself today?

I was chatting with a friend of mine last week about someone who recently got diagnosed with breast cancer – and for a moment I had completely forgotten that I had undergone the same thing!

I think our mind is programmed in a way to keep us going without looking behind – except when we purposely choose to.

2. Has the experience left any physical scars?

I have a couple but they are barely noticeable thanks to my genius doctor, whom I love!

Other than that, does a tattoo count?

I was once labeled as a girl who had cancer. Now, I am labeled as a survivor – literally.

Lara's tattoo

3. More than 5K views and 1.6K likes later: your post on our website has undoubtedly reached a wide audience and touched many. How did people, in general, react to your story (especially those who didn’t know it before) and are there any notable responses that were shared as a result of the post?

I’ve received lots of messages from friends and random people admiring my courage and stating I was an inspiration; all of which delighted me. However, my aim is to raise awareness and encourage women to get examined. I guess I’ll never know for sure whether they’re doing it or not, but I’d like to think they are.

4. How would you describe life post-cancer? Any self-discoveries along the way since our last chat?

In the previous interview two years ago, I had mentioned how I am still very much the same person: still the same friends and still enjoying the same things in life. This still stands. And all those stories you hear or read about how someone had completely metamorphosed are either fictional or perhaps I am just odd. I hope it isn’t the latter!

I must say, though, that today my appetite towards discovering new things has definitely multiplied; simple pleasures can make me euphoric.

Oh – and one thing that has constantly been changing in the past three years is my hairstyle.

LaraTwoYearsLater-Photo02E

5. Speaking of which: has your hair grown back to the way it used to be before chemotherapy? What’s happened to your wig since?

When I had very long hair, I used to threaten hairdressers not to cut more than a centimeter or so. Now I can’t stay away from my adored hairdresser for more than a month.

Only recently have I been growing it back a little but every time I come across a woman with short hair, my heart goes “boom!”: it’s bold, it’s got attitude – it’s different.

Concerning my wig, it’s in the same place it has been since my bald days: deep down in the closet – speaking of which, I’d like to donate it to a cancer patient who will actually wear it!

6. We can’t help but smile each time we look at your “Finish Line” photograph in our previous interview. Do you do anything special to celebrate each year since completing your treatment?

The ultimate celebration will happen once they find a cure. There are so many women out there fighting breast cancer, so we haven’t won the war yet. However, we’re winning many battles thanks to early detection.

I’d like to quote my dear brother here:

“Every milestone is a celebration. Every survivor is a celebration of life. It springs hope in people and inspires them to remain positive and be mentally ready to challenge and beat cancer. We always have to celebrate our small wins in everything we do. This leads the path to bigger celebration – which in this case is cure.”

7. One of the biggest fears women who’ve undergone cancer treatment share is a fear of recurrence. Does that fear diminish as the years pass and what are your particular thoughts on this?

I don’t really think about it unless I’m prompted. There’s no point in living in anxiety and fear of something that’s uncertain: it just drains all your energy and for nothing! This applies to everything in life, not just health.

Hopefully it will never come back, but if it does, I now know the drill and I will do my utmost best to kick its ass the same way I did before.. if not stronger!

8. What does the month of October mean to you as a survivor?

I love it when in October I see random people wearing the pink ribbon, shops changing their window display to pink or nail bars promoting their pink range. It’s just so cool!

But at the same time, I hope awareness is being raised through all of this and that it’s not just for show. I also hope that awareness is not just brought up during this particular month but rather continued all year long.

LaraTwoYearsLater-03

9. Is there any advice you’d like to share with other women reading this?

For starters, stop postponing your routine medical check-ups.

Yes, we all dislike wasting those two hours at the doctor’s waiting area but what are two hours compared to hundreds of hours spent in chemotherapy sessions, radiation therapy, surgery, bed rest.. You get the picture.

Even more so: those two hours could extend someone’s lifetime so please go waste them – and with a smile.

And take your mama with ya!

10. We would like to end our interview with a similar question to that with which we closed our first interview: What kind of breast cancer work and/or awareness would you like to see more of in the region?

Currently, most awareness campaigns are targeted towards women above a certain age. They are often lunches for socialites where large donations are expected, where awareness is disseminated in an old-fashioned way, etc. So what I’d love to witness is more striking campaigns and events targeting the younger generation who seem to believe they are not at risk.

Ideally, awareness campaigns that are able to convert into results whereby each and every woman gets a check-up and help us really fight the war against breast cancer.

So whomever wants to join forces, please raise your hand!

LaraTwoYearsLater-04* All photographs in this interview are provided courtesy of Lara.

Illustrating the Cancer Experience: Interview with Ranya Ghazaly

A few weeks ago, we came across What Happened when Mommy Got Cancer, a children’s book written by Mathuin, a seven-year-old boy of Lebanese origins and the son of Jocelyn Smith who went through breast cancer treatment. Having to go through such an experience is difficult for any family member of those diagnosed with breast cancer, but probably even more so for young children who really struggle to understand and cope with it. It’s really a scary time.

WHWMGC-BookCover

Mathuin learned a lot from this experience and used writing as a form of therapy during this time. Once his mother had finished treatment and was better, he made the decision to help other children going through it by publishing this book. The end-product is a hopeful and beautiful personal story displaying wisdom and maturity beyond Mathuin’s young years that is sure to inspire any child to feel less alone. You can get to know Mathuin and the book better in this TV interview.

We took a few minutes to talk with the illustrator of this book, Ranya Ghazaly, who while tackling this sensitive content and translating it into illustrations, developed some invaluable insight on approaching the subject of cancer for children:

Ranya Ghazaly - the Illustrator of "What Happened When Mommy Got Cancer"

Ranya Ghazaly – the Illustrator of “What Happened When Mommy Got Cancer”

1. How was your experience with illustrating “What Happened when Mommy Got Cancer”?

“What Happened when Mommy Got Cancer” is a children’s book about a mother who is fighting breast cancer and it shows how this affected her own children’s daily life.

Illustrating this book was a unique, challenging and beautiful experience for me.

It was unique because her son, Mathuin, who is seven-years-old at the time wrote it and because it is about a sensitive subject: cancer.

It was challenging because the illustrations needed to reflect a positive ambiance and help other children in the same situation feel better and stronger especially as the situation is delicate, hard and sad.

It was beautiful to know such positive people full of hope and love.

2. What made you decide to take on this project?

It was out of the blue. The founder of Beirut Animation Network (BAN), Alain Nasnas, called and asked me if I would be interested in illustrating a new book. BAN was responsible of finding the right illustrator of this book, so he suggested me.

In such situations, I always read the book first. If it’s something that I don’t think I am suited for after the first few chapters or lines, I’ll call and say this book isn’t my strong suit. But in this case, I immediately accepted after reading the title and knowing that a seven-year-old child had written it.

It was a new and interesting challenge for me to work on a book by a seven-year-old child who wanted to share a message of hope with other kids passing through the same situation.

3. Was this the first time working on a children’s book with such a sensitive subject matter?

I believe that all children’s books are a sensitive matter to deal with. Illustrations have a big psychological effect on children and that’s why you have to consider these factors sensitively while illustrating for them.

It was, however, the first time I work on a book with such a serious and delicate subject matter that was not only dedicated for kids but experienced by a child having gone through it.

As such, I had to consider not only the psychological effect upon children but the psychological state of the child-writer himself.

4. How involved were you in the book production process?

I was only involved in the illustration part of the book production process. After receiving the final text of the book, I had to work on 15 illustrations, including the cover. The illustrations production process consisted of 5 stages: characters design study and illustration, page sketches, final line-art, colored samples, and final coloring process.

While the illustrations were being worked on, Mathuin, Jocelyn (his mother) and myself determined an overall art and mood direction for the book.

5. The characters in the book are based on Mathuin and his family but it appears so even in the way they look. Was this a conscious decision and did Mathuin know in advance how he wanted you to portray the family’s experience with cancer?

Yes, Mathuin wanted the characters in his book to look like his family, but in a more cartoon-ish, simple and fun-to-look-at way. So they sent me one picture as a reference, representing the whole family gathered, with the remark: “We hug a lot in this family”.

SmithFamily-PhotoIllustration

It was enough for me to create the overall look-and-feel of the family characters and the rest of the book illustrations.

6. Did you face any challenges with tackling the subject of cancer in this book, especially when it came to portraying such difficult and emotional scenes as the mom sick in bed or losing her hair?

At first, I thought it was going to be easy until I received a note from Jocelyn about one of the illustrations, saying: “The boy’s expression is too strong. It brought tears to my son’s eyes immediately.”

Her words hit me deep.

While the main subject is cancer, the illustrations should reflect a positive atmosphere full of hope and love.

WHWMGC-Illustration01

The challenge became bigger in every scene, but Jocelyn and her family’s positive attitude was a great inspiration for me. I simply translated their beautiful soul and positivity into illustrations. It even made the hair loss section one of the most fun stages of all!

7. As one of the few children’s books currently available in the market here in Lebanon, how have other children reacted to the book and do you feel it has helped them cope better?

The book has gotten a good reaction from other children, especially from those living through the same situation. It helped them know they were not alone and that other families are struggling with the same issue.

The most important part is that it showed them how to have hope and be positive. It made it easier for them to understand cancer and how it affects families and their lives.

WHWMGC-Illustration03

“What Happened when Mommy Got Cancer” is currently available in all Antoine bookstores in Lebanon for $20 with part of the proceeds of its sales being donated to the Conquer Cancer Foundation