'Not Letting It Define Us' — Walking The Runway With Metastatic Breast Cancer

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“[I’ve had metastatic breast cancer] in the bones, lungs, liver, spine, abdomen and brain. Where else can it go? I’ve gone through all of that … and here I am, walking in New York Fashion Week. How dare I!”

On a cold, bright Sunday afternoon during New York Fashion Week, nearly six hundred people packed into an old building in Manhattan's Lower East Side for an unusual lingerie show.

In 2009, I felt a lump in my breast and instinctively knew something was wrong. It was very blatant and obviously foreign. When I saw my regular doctor, he said, "It's probably a cyst, don't worry about it. You're too young to have breast cancer." I was 31 years old.

The audience shouted exuberantly when the first model stepped onto the runway. Jaleh Panahi, of Kingston, New York, is a 73-year old practicing physician, mother and grandmother who's had metastatic breast cancer for eight years. Wearing a black head scarf, dangling earrings and a loose-fitting shoulder-to-toe outfit, she ambled gracefully, smiling and swiveling with her cane to Whitney Houston's "I'm Every Woman."

Panahi was one of two dozen models at the event with metastatic — or stage 4 — breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. They walked to express their feelings — courage, zest for life, even anger – about living with this illness.

"In this show we told the world that we have lost our breasts but didn't lose our femininity," Panahi said at the afterparty.

This was the third annual #Cancerland fashion show, put on by METAvivor, a nonprofit organization that supports research and awareness of metastatic breast cancer, along with lingerie company, AnaOno. The goal: Raise funds for research to improve treatment for metastatic disease, while changing public perception of the condition.

"It's about making people understand what metastatic breast cancer is, to wake up to the fact that men and women are dying from this disease," says Beth Fairchild, a 39-year old resident of Greensboro, North Carolina, tattooist and METAvivor's president.

Advanced breast cancer kills more than 41,000 Americans – primarily women – each year. New drugs extend the lives of a few, but not nearly enough; as of 2015, median survival with stage 4 breast cancer remained less than three years.

At the show, these patients chose to expose themselves — their lives, their bodies and their scars — defying old expectations of silence. The #Cancerland models are not shying away from cameras. They are choosing to make their illness visible.

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Gary Ricke