Lights, camera...action! There I was, with a huge smile on my face, sitting on the couch at the Four Seasons Toronto d|bar ready for my first shot. I had been transformed from “cancerlebrity” to model.
I was overwhelmed with excitement when I was told that I had been chosen as the 2016 Wellspring Model Search winner. The night before the shoot, I couldn’t sleep; I had butterflies in my stomach. All I could think about was wearing fabulous high-fashion shoes and dazzling jewellery.
There was some road construction that morning, so I was a little late for my call time. When I entered the gorgeous hotel suite, Noreen Flanagan, ELLE Canada’s editor-in-chief, told me that I was fashionably late. “You are a model!” she said, laughing. And that is when the fairy-tale weekend began. I was pampered and treated like royalty by the entire team. It felt so surreal having my picture taken for a fashion shoot—something I’d only dreamed of.
Fashion and beauty have always played a role in my life, even when I was a three-year-old child undergoing gruelling cancer treatments for rhabdomyosarcoma—a cancer of developing muscle tissue—on my neck. My mom likes to remind me that even back then I wanted my nails painted and insisted on wearing my shiny white patent-leather shoes to the hospital.
To this very day, there is something about pretty clothes, stunning shoes and girlie accessories that instantly uplifts me and puts a smile on my face. A great wardrobe and a little makeup can do wonders for the soul.
However, it was not always glitz and glamour for me. Cancer has also been a big part of my life: I battled the disease when I was a child, a teenager (thyroid) and a young adult (uterine, kidney and a malignant peripheral nerve sheath tumour). Being a five-time survivor, I am not new to the cancer game, although my most challenging diagnosis came in February 2014, when I was told that the osteosarcoma I was treated for the year prior had spread to both of my lungs. The diagnosis: metastatic osteosarcoma. I was 32 years old at the time, and I was being told that I had an incurable cancer with a very poor survival rate. In the peak of my life, I was facing death.
Facing an incurable cancer in your early 30s is something no one should ever have to get used to. I was driven and determined more than ever to beat this disease again. I have read nearly every cancer book on the market, revamped my entire diet and lifestyle and started practising meditation. This is how I was introduced to Wellspring, a Canadian cancer-support foundation. I enrolled in the meditation classes there as well as the Healing Journey program. Wellspring has been a true blessing: Not only have I met superb and compassionate individuals who are extremely supportive of one another but I’ve also armed myself with another weapon to use in my fight against cancer.
Although this treacherous disease has tried to slow me down, interrupting pretty much every milestone in my life, I do my best not to let it define me. I became a lawyer, married my soulmate and now have a new focus: cancer advocacy. My ultimate goal is to live in a world where cancer no longer poses a threat to anyone, but in the meantime I am advocating on behalf of cancer patients everywhere and hoping that I can inspire them to never give up or lose hope. I have started a blog [cancergirlsmiles.wordpress.com] as a tool to raise awareness, which has allowed me to connect with cancer patients and their families. I have also been asked to give presentations, and I am working toward creating a foundation to raise money for research into areas that receive less funding in order to help fill gaps that currently exist, especially with respect to rare cancers, metastatic disease and hereditary cancer syndromes, such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome. In 2011, I was diagnosed with this rare syndrome, which affects roughly only 500 families worldwide.
Over the years, cancer has stolen my hair, my energy levels, chunks of my body, a few of my perfectly functioning organs and sometimes even my sanity, but I will not allow it to steal my life—or my sense of fashion, for that matter.
Even though I joke about being a “cancerlebrity,” it has given me a very strong purpose. And it is the role of a lifetime. Whether it’s sharing my story, giving a speech or walking the runway, it all goes toward ensuring that cancer does not win.