Rachel Grunwell

Rachel Grunwell is a fitness writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Breast cancer survivors and their pictures of hope

Cancer survivors appear in an inspiring new calendar.

(From left) Jools Topp - with her horse Intrigue; Liz Mitchell - celebration through her craft; Katlyn Wong - Sekhmet, goddess of healing and Sonja Mravicich - new beginnings. Photo / Chris Traill
(From left) Jools Topp - with her horse Intrigue; Liz Mitchell - celebration through her craft; Katlyn Wong - Sekhmet, goddess of healing and Sonja Mravicich - new beginnings. Photo / Chris Traill

Twenty-one breast cancer survivors boldly shed clothes and offered their bodies as canvases to be painted for the 2013 Pink Ribbon Calendar.

The project aims to save others from being claimed by the disease, by raising awareness, vigilance and also money for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation.

Each woman featured in the calendar was asked "What image best captures the essence of you?". The quotes accompanying each image convey each woman's personal message of inspiration. Here we feature four of the models. Others include chef Anne Thorp, who was painted with a scene from her beloved Pakiri Beach, psychologist Gwendoline Smith, who chose a Valkyrie battle goddess from Norse mythology for its notion of strength and endurance, and eight members of the Pink Dragons Dragon Boat racing team, whose bodies were united as one canvas for the image of giant pink dragon.

The project is the brainchild of Auckland business woman and breast cancer survivor Liz Oliver (also painted in the calendar) and body painter Anna Molineux. They wanted to create something to try to reduce the statistics, such as one in nine women being diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and 600 women dying every year from the disease.

Liz and Anna hope when people hang the calendar in their homes that it will remind them of how they can beat breast cancer, by getting regular mammograms and seeking medical advice if they find anything unusual.

Liz says on the days the women were painted and photographed there was much laughter, fun, and connecting. Tears came later for some "when they saw how beautiful they are".

Jools Topp

"The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse's ears."

- Arabian proverb

Jools Topp says her horse Intrigue helped her ride out the tough times of cancer. She's rapt to have "my mate" painted and starring in the calendar beside her, against a backdrop of her Helensville farm.

She recalls when she was struggling with chemotherapy, which she says felt like poison ripping through her veins, she could some days barely move. But her beloved sister Lynda would gently shroud her in a dressing gown and drive her on a ride-on-lawnmower to see 15-year-old Intrigue in the horse's paddock. There Jools could muster a smile as she stroked her mate's mane.

"Even Lynda reckons the horse has healed me. He blew his breath on me," says Jools.

She also, of course, credits Lynda and her former partner Mary for caring for her. Lynda had been heading to the South Island but when she heard Jools was sick she turned her caravan around, put her life on hold and stayed with her twin for six months.

It's six years now since Jools found the lump that changed her life. Initially it was missed on a mammogram, but when the lump remained for six months she asked a doctor about it again and got an ultra-sound which picked up breast cancer. She then underwent chemotherapy and a mastectomy. She'll never have reconstructive surgery, preferring to keep "the scar that is part of me".

"They were saying they could take a flap from my back (for reconstruction), but I said you can leave that alone!" says Jools. "It (the breast cancer scar) doesn't make me what I am. My head and my heart make me."

Jools says when she was asked feature in the calendar she wanted to make the image on her farm with Intrigue to pictorially tell her story of survival and where she's at now.

The 55-year-old feels like a warrior. The image is of her wearing body of armour representing that the battle is behind her. The painted clothes she and her horse wear also replicate the Spanish-style Vaquero riding gear that Jools makes by hand.

The body painting took six hours. Jools says it was easy being half naked because, as New Zealand knows, she's not shy; she's a performer after all. She was in awe as she watched the artist start with block-like colours and then build up the detail.

"It felt honest, and is really special to me. It depicts who I am now. I beat cancer and I can do anything. I'm a warrior and here's my trusty steed next to me," she says. As for those who may be currently battling the disease, Jools would like to encourage them. "Do not give up, and never look back."

Liz Mitchell

"Dressed in scraps
who walked
the curve of the world
whose bone scraped
whose flesh unfurled
who grieves not
anyone gone
to greet lame
the inspired sky
amazed to stumble
where gods get lost
beneath the southern cross."

- Patti Smith, American singer-songwriter

Designer Liz Mitchell's passion is creating beautiful dresses, and the fact she can still run her hands over sumptuous fabrics and fashion them into works of art is a celebration of her survival.

Her workroom made the embroidered silk skirt she wears in her image, and she brought scraps of exquisite Spanish lace for the body painter to glue on to her as well as replicate with paint. She loves the portrait, which is like that from an historical story book.

In October it will be 10-years since Liz received her "shattering" diagnosis of breast cancer and underwent "the harsh and cruel treatment" of a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.

She will never forget that time of her life when she was amid a busy bridal season. But thankfully she had much support to keep her spirit strong, and she came to know her true inner-strength.

Since overcoming breast cancer Liz appreciates her craft even more, saying that creating clothes "celebrates me being alive".

The designer coped with the disease by going into medical research-mode and learning all she could about it and how she might improve her chances of the best outcome. This included improving her diet.

She has sadly lost count of the number of people she knows who have been struck by the disease and hopes projects like the calendar will help to raise money and awareness. She ultimately hopes researchers will one day uncover what causes breast cancer so people can avoid going through what she's had to endure.

Katlyn Wong

"To become even stronger, the point is to continue forging ahead despite any storms or hardships that may arise, to be fearless and advance like a lioness."

- Daisaku Ikeda, Buddhist philosopher

Katlyn Wong dons one of the most elaborate works of art on the calendar. Hers took roughly 10 hours to create.

The actress, seen in Go Girls and the film My Wedding and Other Secrets, portrays Sekhmet, the Egyptian warrior goddess and goddess of healing. Katlyn's image also encompasses the sun and the lioness.

Katlyn says the Egyptians believed the lioness was the fiercest and bravest of animals and its image symbolises how she had to be brave through her fight with cancer. The sun reminds her of hope and bright days ahead, and she believes having a "sunny disposition" helped her heal.

"I was determined to fight even harder and become even stronger through this experience," she says.

Katlyn was only 28 when she felt lethargic and saw a doctor about bad hayfever, remembering to mention a lump she had noticed a month earlier.

Her diagnosis came on March 16, 2010, and she had surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment. It took a year to fully recover.

The experience was also an awful reminder of her first encounter with cancer when, as a child, she had watched her mother be gradually taken by ovarian cancer.

Katlyn recalls trying to be upbeat about her diagnosis. But it really hit her when she felt "a flash forward of her life" when she lost all her hair, including her eyelashes and eyebrows.

It was like feeling what might happen at the end of life, she explains. But when her hair started to grow back "I felt born again".

Now 31, Katlyn says she has learned to truly treasure life. She cares for herself more, is "less of a stress bunny" and really "lives in the moment".

She hopes her story will remind New Zealanders that breast cancer can strike when you're young.

Sonja Mravicich

"Strength doesn't come from what you can do. It comes from overcoming the things you once thought you couldn't."

- Rikki Rogers, writer

Sonja Mravicich says becoming a beautiful butterfly for the calendar represented a new beginning in her life after only recently surviving breast cancer.

The mother of three young boys and owner of the Seddon St Preschool in Pukekohe, Sonja says she relates to the transformation of the caterpillar through its chrysalis stage, to emerge as an exquisite butterfly. The colour used for the wings represents the happiness and intensity she now feels about life. And the creature's gift of flight is poignant too, "because I feel now that I too can fly."

It was only a year ago that the 37-year-old was diagnosed after noticing that a previously pea-sized lump in her breast had suddenly become the size of a golf ball. Sonja had a double mastectomy and has just finished radiotherapy and chemotherapy. She will remain on medication for five years.

Sonja credits the love of her three sons, her mother, other loved ones, her friends, and the families at her pre-school for keeping her strong. She found taking part in the calendar uplifting. "It was nice to be made beautiful for a day." Her sons say she looks "cool".

Information:

The 2013 Pink Ribbon Calendar, $34.99, on sale now. Available at Whitcoulls stores or online.

$10 from every calendar sold will be donated to the Breast Cancer Foundation.

Credits:

Jools Topp painted by Sofia Bue Pedersen; Liz Mitchell painted by Yolanda Bartram; Katlyn Wong painted Cathy Davies and Anna Molineux; Sonja Mravicich painted by Erin Harrison.

Graphic artist: Lane Worrall.

Photographer: Chris Traill.

- Herald on Sunday

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