The Breast Cancer Women’s Empowerment Project created its own sense of community, and many of the participants described it as a cathartic therapy session.
Topless and covered in body paint, they exchanged stories about treatment side effects, their families and careers. Some were preparing for or had undergone lumpectomies or mastectomies, and some were entering early menopause as a result of medications. One young woman discussed whether she would be able to have children, and another pointed out that her favorite part of chemotherapy was that she didn’t have to shave her legs anymore.
“It’s a sisterhood and a bond,” says participant Carrie Kreiswirth. “[Cancer] is a club you don’t want to be a part of, but once you are in, you are in it for life and you are given connections that feel real and helpful and positive.”
Carrie, 40, did not know what art she would choose when she arrived. As she and the artist, Ashleigh Alexandria, spoke, she blurted out “girl on fire,” referencing Katniss Everdeen, the heroine from “The Hunger Games,” whom she thought about a lot during her now-completed cancer treatment.
“That concept quickly morphed into the idea of a phoenix rising from the ashes, which I also identified with,” says Carrie, who had images of fire stretched along her arms and torso. She says she interpreted the myth of the phoenix to symbolize power, peace, and patience, which she has summoned during her own journey. She also found herself humming the Alicia Keys song “Girl on Fire” throughout the morning.
Faith Taraskus, 38, who earlier this year had a bilateral mastectomy, chose to have a rose painted on her chest with flames built into it.
“It was so feminine and pretty, but strong,” she says. “I don’t have my final implants in yet, and I’m not going to for another month and a half, so it’s been weird. I hate to say it, but at times I feel like less of a woman. I don’t have breasts right now. I have expanders [tissue expanders that make room for the final implant] and they are oddly shaped and not in the right place. Just seeing something beautiful there instead was a really helpful reminder that I am still me, with or without natural breasts.”
Dr. Tessa Cigler, a breast oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, stopped by the sessions and posed for photos with some of her patients.
“A diagnosis of breast cancer and its treatment has so many implications for a woman’s body image,” says Dr. Cigler, who is also an associate professor of clinical medicine and the medical director of the Weill Cornell Breast Center. “The ability to celebrate one’s body in a positive way and to take back control is empowering. It’s just amazing to recognize the unbelievable strength and beauty of these women.”