As we enter Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Alexis Bittar wants to be at the forefront of the conversation—by giving women living with the effects of breast cancer the visibility they deserve. In a portrait series dedicated to the vivacity of such women, Bittar highlights seven survivors who are navigating their recovery journey, with or without reconstruction. The campaign, which is part of the brand’s initiative to raise funds for Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC), is a mixture of strength, realness, inspiration, and healing.
And mark your calendars as Alexis Bittar will be donating 50% of all sales online and in-stores to LBBC on Wednesday, October 19th and Thursday, October 20th.
"I wanted to create a space for women to tell their stories about their journeys with breast cancer, discussing the trauma openly as well as coming from a perspective of strength and recovery. For the first shot, I asked each woman to dress “as if you were going to a party”—a true celebratory moment. In the second portrait, I wanted to celebrate their bodies as they are now, post-treatments and surgeries. Each of the seven women had their own individual take on it. For example, Chelsey decided to wear a latex body suit, looking like a badass dominatrix, while Angeles looked like a statuesque ballerina. The concept was to highlight the strength and beauty as they are today. Needless to add, we had a lot of fun on set." - Alexis
Angeles Almuna Weil
Angeles, 53, from Chile and a fashion industry creative who lives in Miami, was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer in June of 2015. She recalls 16 chemotherapies, (a linear tattoo to mark each one is etched on her body), radiation and three surgeries. “It was a lot,” she says. Her grandmother had also had breast cancer. “It was a completely different approach at the time. Now the medicine is incredible, fantastic, I don’t know how to express that.” Nonetheless, receiving the news was a shock. “The worst part is when they call you and they say, ‘Can you sit down’. Immediately I knew it was going to be bad news.” Angeles' first reaction was: “Why me?”. “I was very afraid, and the first thought was ‘I’m going to die’. I wanted to scream and say the F word. I didn’t know what to expect because you know the stereotypes of cancer in general - because films, Hollywood, all of that - but in the end you don’t know anything.” She received the news around her 46th birthday. “So, I decided the show must go on so tomorrow I’m going to celebrate life with my closest friend. I’m going to be quiet and on Monday I’m going to change my life and acknowledge this new chapter.” The treatment, she says, was horrible and came with ups and downs. Angeles needed help. “I had to get some light, so I called and got the support I needed.” She also turned to fashion, something Angeles loves, to get her through the darker times. “I can be beautiful in a different way,” she says, “and embrace those moments. I can decorate myself.” Brooches and turbans. When she received treatment at (what Angeles describes as) “chemo-land”, she recalls how fellow patients would ask her if they could copy her style. “I said of course, so I taught some of them how to tie a turban, how to decorate it, and at the same time be yourself. It was beautiful. It was a gift for me and a gift for them. I gave something to them and everyday there was a little happiness and a little hope,” she recalls. Looking back, she remembers at first having “all the bad words in your mind” and all the angry questions. But then, Angeles began learning about the process. “You have to breathe a lot, learn about your body, listen to your body,” she says. “Definitely you are stronger at the end.”
In 2017 at the age of 33, Chelsey, now 38, a hairdresser for the past 20 years and based between San Francisco and New York, was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. In 2019, she was told she was metastatic, which is when the cancer spreads from where it had originally started. “I have an extreme amount of family history,” says Chelsey, noting breast cancer occurrence on both her maternal and paternal sides. “For me it was sort of a moment of ‘When?' and the fear that I had that potential. I never imagined it would be at 33. So, when I was initially diagnosed, I was completely shocked and shuttered. I was at the height of my career and had a lot of shit going on and was not expecting to get the diagnosis.” Chelsey had also never heard of triple negative despite knowing as much as she did about cancer. She worked through treatment and tried to keep a sense of normality in her life. “I was met with these big decisions,” she says, and would go on to have a double mastectomy, which meant she could avoid radiation. She explains: “There is a five-year window with triple negative. You have this deep voice, fear, concern in the back of your mind: who knows what's going to happen?” She was pronounced clear at her one-year mark. But then found a strange spot on her back. Watched and waited, it wasn’t going away, instead it progressively got bigger. Then she found a smaller spot on her lower back. A biopsy showed Chelsey was metastatic. “I lost it,” she recalls. During the past five years, food has proved to be a massive outlet for her, providing a sense of control. Chelsey puts a lot of energy and focus into what she puts into her body to make it better. She also meditates, practices self-help and self-management to deal with stress. Currently she is disease free. Looking back, she says she would “reassure myself to trust my intuition, trust myself, trust who I choose to get care from and to go easy on myself. That grief is part of all of this. Losing your identity and hair, all these sorts of things is a process of grief. So really go easy on myself and allow myself to process things at my own rate.”
Connie Fleming, a trans woman who describes her age as “old” and her job as being a “door bitch from hell”, as well as a fashion illustrator, model coach and aspiring artist, is based in New York. It was just before Christmas in 2017 that Connie was having an issue with her right breast being itchy. “I woke up and was itching it and then I felt a lump. OK, what’s going on?” she recalls. At the time she didn’t have health insurance but was able to get a mammogram via a program at The Mount Sinai hospital. The itch had first manifested that summer, when she wore an underwired bra and there would be some 'boob sweat'. “I thought it was irritation from that,” perhaps the soap or deodorant she was using. She reasoned. It was discovered after a biopsy that Connie had a rare form of lymphoma that was beginning to be found in patients with textured breast implants. “The nooks and crannies promoted this sort of infection, becoming this rare form of lymphoma.” Both implants were removed, and another mass was uncovered underneath the implants. Four lymph nodes were removed, two of which tested positive for lymphoma. Connie underwent six months of chemotherapy and radiation. “I got on the train and rode it,” she says. “It was a journey and a half, and I’ve learned so much about myself, my body and me. Me as a person of color and a trans woman of color.” Being trans, she explains, “You really have to be careful with your body and the way it deals with things.” On receiving the diagnosis, she says she was relieved, “that this, that was sort of in the back of my mind, gnawing at me - what is it? Is it bad? Is it really bad? Is it going to kill me? Is it an infection? How can I help myself? Because it’s daunting without health insurance.” For Connie, work became a strong focus throughout the process, as did her creative community. “I threw myself into work and didn’t give myself time to sit around and be Oh woe is me,” she says. Which also resulted in doing two plays plus artwork and keeping herself busy with “what fed me and my soul. My artistic community didn’t want me to sit around,” she proudly states.
Jan, 57, a pilates instructor and studio owner based in Brooklyn, who is also a certified breast cancer rehabilitative exercise specialist through the Pink Ribbon Program, noticed a rash on her nipple in 2012. “I spend days in sweaty workout gear running around so I thought it was just a runner’s rash or nipple rash and didn’t think that much about it,” she recalls. It spread to the areola, so Jan went to the dermatologist. An initial diagnosis of eczema didn’t sit quite right with Jan, who had a knowledge of eczema. It would later be confirmed as Paget’s disease, a rare form of breast cancer which she explains is “very invasive. By the time it shows up outside the skin it’s usually very invasive beneath.” Jan's first reaction was disbelief. “Then I’m Googling it. I just remember saying to myself ‘No no no no no no no’ over again.” She was told she could have a lumpectomy but because it affected the nipple and the areola “there was no getting around that there would be a divot.” Jan didn’t want to do radiation. She opted for surgery and had a mastectomy. Jan recalls her decision stunning various people - because she chose not to reconstruct. For her, she says it felt odd to take something out and then put something back in. She wanted the experience to be “a small blip in time in an otherwise long and complicated sometimes dramatic life. "I really didn’t want it to be a defining thing and honestly it hasn’t been.” Jan wrote a blog about her decision not to reconstruct and later got a tattoo which swirls across where her breast once was. “I can’t stop taking my shirt off and showing people,” she laughs. Jan offers specialized classes for women who have recovered from or who are in treatment for breast cancer and wanting to get back into exercise. For her, the road back was not about trying to look how she used to look but keeping the same level of strength and vitality. She hopes to do the same for other women.
Roberta 'Bobbi' Albany
In the beginning, when Roberta, 53, from Pennsylvania, was diagnosed with hormone receptor positive breast cancer, “I was upset, in denial, angry. I will be honest, I lost a bit of faith,” she admits. “I knew I had to be strong not just for me but my son and others that were around me and my Aunt Rita, who wouldn’t let me stay in my pity party long.” It was in 2013 that she received the diagnosis, spending the next year, 2014, receiving chemotherapy, radiation, and surgeries, and “more surgeries”. She would have a mastectomy on the left side, as well as have her ovaries removed. “My life changed dramatically,” she recalls. “It took me through a lot. You lose people.” But her son remained a steadfast focus in her life. “It was important for me to get through my treatment especially when he was at school to get his masters.” The deal was he would have to walk up and collect his degree and she would be there. And so, in March 2015, that’s what he did. “That was one of the biggest highlights of my life.” That same year she applied to become a patient advocate at LBBC, “Because I didn’t want other women to go through what I went through. It helps me because I’m helping them.” It’s a role she says she has since “flourished” in. “I love how we empower one another. And that’s what I try to do, not just with my advocacy but period.”
Kerri, 41, a textile designer and product developer who splits her time between Texas and New York was 39 when she was diagnosed with stage two cancer. She found the lump herself while in a yoga class. “I was doing a side stretch and felt something under my sports bra and rib cage,” Kerri thought she had pulled an intercostal muscle. “I’m young. I’m fit, there’s probably nothing wrong,” she concluded. In 2019, her mother had been diagnosed with ALS and Kerri was one of her primary caretakers. It was only 53 days after her mother’s passing that Kerri found out she had breast cancer. “I had an ultrasound; I didn’t need the biopsy.” At the time it was March 2020, about a week before the world would shut down. Kerri received a text from the hospital to tell her her surgery had been cancelled. At the time, Kerri didn’t know anyone else who had had it. But when she reached out to friends and family, the floodgates opened to ensure support, help, and swift treatment. She decided: “I can’t go anywhere. I need to be here for my brother, my nephews, my niece, and my husband. And I think my strength is really coming from that, wanting to be here as long as possible on the planet. I feel like I’m not done.” She wrote a book about the process, a journal-style, called The Cancer Calendar. “All of a sudden you’re at the doctors more than ever,” and the book is a way to keep track of this and gain a sense of control; its front cover is a collage of brightly coloured shapes. “I was this mess of beautiful shapes that didn’t quite fit back together like they used to,” she states with poignancy. Her artwork, she says, played a huge role during the process - two surgeries, six rounds of chemotherapy, 35 rounds of radiation. Being mentally healthy was also hard. “It’s your body. It’s so personal. To tell someone you’ve gone through breast cancer immediately visions pop into their head about your body and insides. The embarrassment.” Two years in remission, Kerri feels like now she is able to get passed it. “It feels like it was two years ago, but it also feels like it was 200 years ago.”
Now 37, Abby, a speech pathologist from just outside Philadelphia, and an LBBC advocate for breast cancer awareness, was 35 when she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. “Doctors told me I should be prepared to hear that I carried the cancer susceptibility gene because I’m so young and of Ashkenazi -Jewish descent,” she says. “So, I prepared myself to hear that I had a reason for my cancer, which was somewhat comforting being so young,” she shares. Later, she would also be told she had the BRCA 1 mutation, which means she was at a higher risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer than those without it. On the same day she was diagnosed, her father was also diagnosed with prostate cancer, and it was discovered that her mother carried the gene as well. “That August 2020 we felt, as a family, cancer had robbed us. It just felt like the rug was pulled from underneath us so quickly.” But Abby also had a lot to fight for: her daughter was five at the time. “You hear about a five-year mark of women making it with triple negative and all I could think about is she’ll be 10 years old in five years, I’ll be 40. And if I make it she’ll remember me but if I don’t, she’ll never know who I am.” As an adult, her daughter will also have to test. “I don’t want her to have to go through that,” says Abby, who went on to have a double mastectomy and a full hysterectomy. “Since then, I’ve been living my life and sharing my story because sharing my story means I’m helping someone else watch their risk factors. I consider myself a knowledgeable person, but I had no idea. I have zero history. I am the first and I hope the last in my family to have breast cancer.” Abby describes herself as a Type A personality and that cancer takes so much control away from you. She decided to be proactive, practise mindfulness, take care of the food she put in her body and put herself first. “Honestly, I’ve never felt healthier and better in my skin than I do today. I am so confident now. I just did the hardest thing in my life. Nothing is ever going to be as hard as cancer treatment. I did it!”