Last year, in 2019, I was selected as one of 26 women with metastatic breast cancer to walk the runway at New York Fashion Week for AnaOno and Metavivor. It was one of the most incredible, mind-boggling experiences of my life, an experience it has taken me a year to process.
Last year, I had just started my second line of treatment – a clinical trial – my disease was still isolated in my bones, and I had yet to form many significant bonds with the metastatic community. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I was caught up in the activity, the performance, the theatrics of my role in the fashion show. I didn’t fully understand the gravitas behind the glamour. Yes, the show was a beautiful, successful tribute to those of us still living with metastatic breast cancer, and a celebration of the lives we have forged out of devastating diagnoses. But only now can I more fully recognize the seriousness of the mission of such an otherwise jovial event.
This year, I was not a participant in the show. I am on my (I believe) sixth line of treatment. Walking up a flight of stairs is difficult for me and leaves me winded. Most aspects of life right now are a struggle. My bones are the least of my concern, as my disease has spread to my brain, cerebral spinal fluid, and liver. Not only was I much sicker, but I have become much more connected to the metastatic community. I have felt the losses we suffer daily as personal blows – reminders by a stealthy terrorist that I could be next.
This year, I sat in the audience, in a balcony seat. This spot afforded me the opportunity to look out at the audience seated below. My position as observer allowed me to reflect back on my experiences the previous year, and, moreso, the experiences that have come about from those few, transformative moments a year ago on the runway. Last year, the audience was a blur of cheers and support, a buoying of love and respect that I don’t think can ever fully be replicated. This year, as I waited for the show to begin and I watched the audience members populate their seats one by one, I found myself sucking in my breath, over and over. Everywhere I looked, I saw ghosts: names and faces that are no longer with us, but whose spirits filled the air.
That was why we were there. We were not there to strut down the runway, to slip, for a few moments, into the glamour of New York Fashion Week. We were there to make a statement, to send a message. We were there to recognize and to stamp our feet louder and louder for the work that still needs to be done. We were there to face the fears we carry, whether they be etched on our backs or tucked neatly away in a closet corner, that we could be next. And that the only way to prevent that is to fund research – innovative, creative, ho-holds-barred research that will change the way we can approach treatments for this disease.
The theme of the fashion show last year, in 2019, was Not Just One – a statement reminding us not only that we are not alone, but a battle cry that our friends – our family members – our loved ones – keep dying from metastatic breast cancer at an alarming, and increasing rate. This year, the theme was FearLESS – a similar statement of unity, but also a reminder that we conquer fear through knowledge, through understanding, and through progress. And the way we can do that, right now, is through research.
We cannot alleviate the fears felt by those ghosts in attendance last weekend, whose faces bore witness to the fear the felt when their time ran out. But we can continue to try to do right by them and honor their legacies by relentlessly pushing forward to better understand, better treat, and provide better quality of life for those of us still here.