Lori Cuellar posed for the camera at Matheson Hammock Park. The morning sun was hitting her. Biscayne Bay and the Miami skyline were in the background.
The 51-year-old wore a halter dress with tribal prints that fell to the ground, covered with seaweed. Black horizontal lines were painted on her face to complete the fierce look. A blue-and-green feather earring hung from her left earlobe. Cuellar is missing the top half of that ear.
“I let a scab on my ear go for several years without anything being done to it, so I ended up losing the better portion of an ear to skin cancer,’’ she said.
Seven years ago, Cuellar was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma, the most common type of skin cancer, with about 3.5 million new cases a year. She is one several women to be featured in a fashion blog portraying local women cancer survivors.
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Edyna Garcia, 25, created the blog in honor of her grandmother, Hada Béjar Garcia, an actress from Cuba who loved fashion. She died of stomach cancer in March 2014 at 83.
“She had so many traits that I aspire to have one day, and if I could be somewhat like my grandmother, then I've become a really good woman,’’ said Garcia, a Miami event planner.
Cuellar’s 27-year-old daughter, Renee, encouraged her to do this photo shoot. (“She tends to be a little shy, a little timid being around a lot of people, and she kind of stays in her shell a little bit,’’ Renee said.)
For Lori Cuellar, the experience was definitely outside of her comfort zone. “I’ve never spent the day in front of a camera and posed,” she said. “It was a very pleasant surprise. I didn’t think I’d find it that easy.’’
Cuellar started chemotherapy in July. When her hair began to fall out in clumps, she shaved it all off. Her shaved head brought more attention to her ear and facial scars.
“We want them to show the reality, and we want to show them the the beauty in their scars,” Garcia said.
Garcia remembers her grandmother taking the time to present herself well: “She was always dressed up. She was always beautiful and made up, and she always had some sort of red lipstick on.”
Hada Béjar Garcia starred in telenovelas such as Olvidarte Jamás, Angel rebelde, Gata salvaje and Guadalupe.
“She was the person [who], when I would buy something that I couldn’t tell my mom I bought, I would be like, ‘Grandma, look at what I bought,’ and then she’d be like, ‘That's awesome! Don’t tell your mom either,’’’ Edyna Garcia remembered, laughing.
Garcia is a fashion stylist for the Wear To Now photo shoots and uses one piece of her grandmother’s jewelry in every shoot. She has four other women working with her: a hair stylist, makeup artist, photographer and videographer. “My entire team does this pro bono,’’ she said.
Leslie Lyn is the blog’s photographer. She also lost her grandmother to pancreatic cancer about 10 years ago. She said this blog honors her grandmother, too.
“The little complaints that we have every day — complaining about our bills and what to wear and all those little things — is nothing compared to what these ladies are doing, and the strength they and to have to get through this and get where they are,” Leslie said.
Lori Cuellar’s photo shoot wrapped up in the rainforest section of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. After the shoot was done, she looked over the photos.
“I’m not used to seeing myself bald-headed, for one thing, much less with all the makeup,’’ Cuellar said. “I’m not used to seeing myself like a model.’’
About a month ago, Cuellar found out she’s cancer-free.
“I felt like today that I did beat cancer, that I did come out on top,’’ she said. “Something that was hard for me and it can turn around and be such a beautiful experience.’’
Garcia, the blog’s creator, says Cuellar’s photoshoot will debut in June. For now, Garcia is working on making Wear To Now a nonprofit. Eventually, she wants to take the blog national, featuring men and children, too.
“What I’ve fallen in love with the most is seeing them come to life, and that's just way better than putting an outfit together,” she said.
This story was written for WLRN, which is a part of Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.