Breast cancer survivors' beauty on display at The Day of Caring

Staff writer Andrea Torres chronicles her breast cancer experiences in Tropical Life. Read previous columns at MiamiHerald.com/health.

05/15/2012 5:00 AM

05/06/2013 6:04 PM

David Labrie radiated self-confidence in his bubble-gum pink bow tie and black tuxedo, flashing a great grin as he strode down the runway at the Models of Hope fashion show.

Seeing a male model surprised some in the audience of about 700 at the 11th annual Day of Caring for Breast Cancer Awareness on Saturday at the InterContinental hotel in downtown Miami. It had been about two years since the 55-year-old father of three was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma.

Labrie is grateful “that it was him that was diagnosed with cancer and not his wife or daughter,” master of ceremonies Mark Schumacher told the crowd.

Christine Zahralban looked like a professional bathing suit model in a two-piece that accentuated her voluptuous figure. Two years ago, soon after her 39th birthday, she was diagnosed with stage 1 colloid breast cancer. No one who saw her on Saturday would have guessed that the stunning Miami-Dade County prosecutor had undergone weekly chemotherapy treatments for six months.

“She enjoys spinning, boxing, dancing, weightlifting,” Schumacher said as she gracefully walked in six-inch platform heels. “She is grateful she chose to have both breasts removed as it was discovered that she also had cancer in her other breast.”

The models exuding joie de vivre on the catwalk also included an accountant, an actress, an art teacher, an advertising executive, a loan processor and a University of Miami law professor.

Rhonda McKnight-Smith, a grandmother, said having cancer had “really opened her eyes to what is important.” Debra Cabrera said she “discovered her inner strength and calmness through it all.”

There were many stories of survival. And no one appeared to be feeling any self-pity.

Losing my breasts has made me feel less feminine and attractive, but the women on that runway made me think that cancer patients should view themselves as ugly ducklings on their way to becoming swans. The promise is that as time passes, the image in the mirror will improve along with your health.

The fashion show was preceded by sessions on topics ranging from “Advances in Medical Oncology” and “Options in Reconstructive Surgery” to a tai chi workshop called “Learn Meditation in Motion.”

In a lecture titled “Fact or Fiction: Myths of Breast Cancer,” Dr. Elisa Krill-Jackson and Dr. Estelamari Rodriguez tackled several misconceptions.

“Yes, you can dye your hair,” said Krill-Jackson. “There is no risk in wearing deodorant,” said Rodriguez. “Underwire bras do not cause cancer,” and when it comes to food, “you can eat everything in moderation,” said Krill-Jackson. “Just try to stay away from refined sugars as much as you can,” Rodriguez added.

Then the crowd convened in a ballroom decorated in shades and textures of pink at tables sprinkled with heart-shaped glitter.

A blue-eyed little boy named John stood in front of the stage to listen to the keynote speaker. It was his mom, Dee Dee Ricks, and he was proud.

Wearing a long, figure-flattering fuchsia dress and sophisticated jewelry, Ricks looked like a Barbie doll princess. But the façade of perfection melted as she told her story.

As an activist for the uninsured, Ricks has raised millions to fund a cancer center for the poor in Harlem and is working with The Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute to expand breast screening.

She was 39 when she was diagnosed in 2007. A 2011 HBO film, The Education of Dee Dee Ricks, documented her experience with breast cancer, focusing on inequities of the healthcare system.

Ricks showed the movie trailer and shed some tears. She said that when she developed a friendship with Cynthia Dodson, an African-American breast cancer patient who was uninsured, she never imagined that one of them was not going to survive. Dodson died in 2009.

Ricks said her experience transformed her from a self-absorbed hedge-fund consultant obsessed with million-dollar deals into a woman who had found her “purpose in life.”

MY JOURNEY

Part 1: At age 33, I’m dealing with breast cancer

Part 2: Cancer treatment complicates dreams of pregnancy

Part 3: Hanging in when chemotherapy gets rough

Part 4: Tough surgery choices: Mastectomy vs. Lumpectomy

Part 5: Silicone implans are not the only way to go in breast reconstruction

Part 6: Rebuilding the breast from body tissue

Part 7: Body fat can be used to build breast

Part 8: Facing my fears after mastectomy

Part 9: Taking control of the fear that comes with breast cancer

Part 10: Doctor knows about being a breast cancer survivor

Part 11: Radiation therapy gives her hope

Part 12: Finding strength from others

Part 13: Facebook, medication help breast cancer patient deal with depression

Part 14: A new outlook on 2012

Part 15: Breast cancer patient faces genetic mystery

Part 16: Using diversion to cope with harsh reality

Part 17: After radiation therapy ends

Part 18: Friend’s breast cancer journey is not as fortunate

Part 19: Anti-tumor meds come with scary story

Part 20: Reentry into the world after breast cancer treatment

Part 21: Too much fear, too little trust

Part 22: Chemo brain complicates return to work

Part 23: The Cancerous tumor is gone, not the fear

Part 24: Drawing strength from a singer’s defiant spirit

Part 25: A breast cancer message at Ultra Music Festival

Part 26: High hope for new drug

Part 27: Religion is an unavoidable topic

Part 28: Treatment changes social life

Part 29: Fatigue is frequent post-treatment companion

Part 30: Men look at breasts more than anything else

Part 31: Having cancer means being a myth buster

From the Editor: Journalist confronts cancer, takes readers along

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