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Finding strength from others

The ugly truth about breast cancer is not an easy one to share, but it is an important mission that many beautiful women take seriously.

Former Miss Venezuela Eva Ekvall, whose struggle with breast cancer began in 2010 and ended with her death last week at age 28, allowed a photographer to document her physical transformation during treatment.

“I hate to see photos in which I come out ugly. But you know what? Nobody ever said cancer is pretty or that I should look like Miss Venezuela when I have cancer,” Ekvall said during an interview last year with El Nacional, a Venezuelan newspaper.

The photos published in Ekvall’s book, Fuera de Foco (“Out of Focus”), showed how treatment can turn a gorgeous, strong woman into a fragile, ghostly figure.

“It’s painful to look at yourself in the mirror,” she said during an interview with the Guardian in February. “Your face gets swollen. You lose every single hair on your body — your eyebrows, your eyelashes. You become some weird animal.”

The third runner-up of the 2001 Miss Universe pageant, who also worked as a news anchor, wanted to motivate women to get mammograms. She said in numerous interviews that she wanted women to spend less money and time on their appearance and more on their health. Yes, shoe addicts, she was talking to us.

In another effort to raise awareness, Katie Huttlestone, a literature student in England, posted a video on YouTube earlier this year titled “Breast Cancer at 21.” Chemo had not touched her beauty yet. Her skin was flawless and her shoulder-length orangy-red hair made her blue eyes glimmer.

“I cried. I was in shock. I thought I was dreaming,” Huttlestone said about the day she found out she had cancer. She added that she was concerned “because in young women breast cancer is more aggressive.”

As I followed Huttlestone’s vlog, I related to some of her frustrations: “Some times my brain is going a little bit crazy and I am feeling anxious about what I am going to do with myself each day. I find it hard not working. I was really driven before. I really wanted to make some crazy good career for myself and be really independent, but now I find myself back home. It’s a world upside down.”

Losing my breasts and having to show my chest with its scars to handsome medical students at the University of Miami has been one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life, so I was surprised to find out there were women who had undergone bilateral mastectomies who were willing to bear it all on YouTube.

“It’s not like it’s my body anymore. That’s why I had no problem being in these videos and showing you these scars These are not my breasts,” Michele Martineau said in her vlog. She chose to do prophilactic mastectomies at age 37, after learning she was at high risk for breast cancer.

Thousands of people watched Martineau topless, as she showed her breast reconstruction journey on her CourageIsMyStrength YouTube channel. I really identified with her struggles.

“I miss being soft, and I miss being curvy and I miss feeling feminine and I miss feeling real,” said Martineau in her vlog. “It’s very hard to look in the mirror every day and see what I look like.”

Last week, I connected with three young women, who were recently hit with the dreadful diagnosis. Account manager at the Miami Heat Jessica LaBonte lost her mother and grandmother to breast cancer. She is sharing her diary on The delightfully irreverent Susannah Breslin, a former sex reporter for Playboy, is telling it like it is on the Pink Slipped blog for Forbes. Xeni Jardin, co-editor of Boing Boing, says Breslin saved her life by inspiring to get a “funny stiffness” in her breast checked. She live-tweeted the mammogram to her 52,350 followers @Xeni.

“Been following your story with great interest,” Jardin said on a tweet directed to me @miamicrime. “Your story about the motherhood issue hit home in a hard way. Same. Much empathy and wishes of strength.”

My eyes filled with tears and I smiled. There is no way to describe the camaraderie one feels with women who are too young to be struggling with this merciless monster.

On Friday at St. Katharine Drexel Catholic Church in Weston, I sat in silence with tears rolling down my cheeks. I drove there in pain from Miami Beach, because I wanted to pay my respects and honor Ekvall’s memory. She was cremated in Houston, but her family and friends brought her remains to Florida, before taking them to Venezuela, where the country mourned the death of their courageous beauty queen.

Ekvall, who is survived by her husband John Fabio Bermudez and their 2-year-old daughter Miranda, was an extraordinary woman who didn’t suffer in vain. For some of us, mirrors and cameras are too painful to deal with. I am glad that Ekvall and others like her have had that courage. Their images, which will live forever, make shy, tortured patients like me feel less alone.