Imagine being a young, 14-year-old girl on the cusp of adolescence, catapulting into the promising breadth of your teenage years, and receiving halting news of having breast cancer. Kierra Sewell was that girl, and is now a 16-year-old breast cancer survivor, bringing her motivating testimony to Williamsburg this Saturday, for the third annual Catwalk for the Cure Fashion Show, hosted by Walsingham Academy. The evening will be filled with fashion, entertainment and, most importantly, activities aimed at raising awareness of women’s health issues. This year, Walsingham students will participate alongside the local, Hampton Roads-based non-profit, Beyond Boobs! Inc.
Sewell is one of many young pre-menopausal members who join the group to provide breast health awareness, which should not to be confused with education on breast cancer. Members at the event will wear playful, yet informative slogans, such as “Check these out! At least once a month. Early Detection Saves Lives,” is a playful yet informative slogan, worthy of their cause.
“[Beyond Boobs!] is an exclusive club,” Co-Founder René Bowditch said, “It’s one nobody wants to join, we are not your typical support group.”
They also call themselves H.I.P. chicks, meaning hope, inspiration and power. All three virtues intend to motivate women to detect any cancer early through self-examination.
The organization was founded in September of 2006 when Bowditch met other breast cancer survivors at a retreat and befriended Co-Founder Mary Beth Gibson and other young women.
“I talked to her [Gibson] about how difficult it was for younger women — the challenges of intimacy, fertility. When we are dealing with young families, jobs or both, as well as the chemotherapy treatments, it’s a struggle,” Bowditch said.
What started as five women meeting for tea once a month after the retreat, rapidly expanded to a group of over 100 people. Eventually, the women recruited enough people for their cause to create chapters in the Hampton Roads area.
“We didn’t intend to do any of it, but we started to get the word out — contacted doctor’s offices, hospitals, etc. — and they started referring young women to us.”
The organization, which wants to distinguish itself from other grassroots organizations, used the group’s positive attitude as inspiration for name.
“We thought that we were beyond all that — being identified by our breasts, by our disease. It’s a controversial name, but it works,” Bowditch said. “You will not forget it because we deal with this subject in a unique way. We are not the average support group. We don’t meet in hospice rooms or hospitals, we meet in homes. And we have an amazing bond, like we are among long-lost friends.”
Awareness of breast health has greatly increased among men and women in the Hampton Roads area as a result of effort by Beyond Boobs!
“We are all so aware of it, but we are also scared of it,” Bowditch comments. “We want breast health to be as common as flossing your teeth or following a beauty regimen. Beyond Boobs! wants to give women the power to do what they need to do and know how to do it.”
By providing annual breast health calendars — which can also be used as a manual for breast self-exams — attending health fairs, speaking at the College of William and Mary and holding events such as Catwalk for the Cure, the organization advocates the pursuit of knowledge including risks, health factors, screening methods, procedures and other facets of breast-health awareness. Beyond Boobs! Inc. hopes to interact more with William and Mary students in the future.
“Beyond Boobs! will talk to any group that wants to hear us,” Bowditch said. “We really want to get on-campus and bring the message of breast health to students.” Beyond Boobs! was invited to participate in the William and Mary Health Fair and have spoken to several resident halls through educational programs. Last year, Beyond Boobs! Inc. spoke at the screening of “Sex and The City,” sponsored by Health Outreach Peer Educators.
“They are trying to raise awareness of breast cancer in women. Women our age don’t think it’s possible for them to have cancer.” Wesley Ng, ’11, Vice-President of Substance Abuse branch in H.O.P.E., said. “[Beyond Boobs!] is a great resource for young women,”
Generous supporters from the Hampton Roads area, including Walsingham Academy and Merchants Square, have assisted in spreading Beyond Boobs!’s message.
“I am not even a breast cancer survivor. I am just a mom who wanted to reach out and help. René and Mary literally save lives every day,” Judi Thomas, a member of Beyond Boobs!, said.
The Catwalk for the Cure Fashion Show will take place on Saturday at 7 p.m. in Walsingham’s McAuley auditorium. The benefit will showcase lovely fashions from local shops such as The Carousel, The Campus Shop, Bella Lingerie and Loungewear. Tickets are $5 for students and $8 for adults. Reserved seats along the runway may be purchased for $12. Pick up tickets in advance at Walsingham or by calling Carrie Karnes at (757) 259-4673. Tickets will also be sold at the door the day of the event.
Bowditch hopes that this will be yet another event that increases student awareness about breast cancer. “Any opportunity we can have to talk to students we would love. This is the age we really want to reach students. If we can teach young women to start checking their breasts now, it will become a life-long habit that will eventually save their lives.”