Cancer survivors transform into runway models

Originally posted on for the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire.

Two-year-old Jaylen Kalia Chavis of Richmond, Va., struts down the runway wearing Gap Kids. Jaylen was diagnosed with mesoblastic nephroma in November 2009 and is now cancer free. Photo by Emily Siner

WASHINGTON – The 39 models on the runway Friday night in the Ronald Reagan Building Atrium had little in common – at first glance.

Some were bald. Some had broad shoulders. Some were white, some black, some Latino. The youngest was 2 years old. The oldest was 71.

But they all had one thing in common: They all had battled cancer, and they had survived.

Breast cancer, skin cancer, bone cancer, brain tumors, leukemia, lymphoma – one by one, they walked down the fashion show runway as an announcer read off their conditions. And the way they walked, you would never have guessed that they had once been read their last rites in a hospital bed, or that they once couldn’t even stand up because the chemo made their feet hurt so badly or that they’re afraid their next MRI might show another tumor.

Instead, they wore their conditions as a badge of honor.

“It’s a way to say, ‘Look, we’re here. We’re survivors,’ ” Sheryl Gary, a five-year breast cancer survivor and first-time model, said. Gary, 55, a teacher, lives in Brentwood, Md.

The models raise their glasses to the audience during the show’s finale. Thirty-nine cancer survivors walked the runway Friday night. Photo by Emily Siner

The runway show was part of Cure By Design, a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society that began seven years ago in Richmond, Va., and spread to several cities.

This year, Cure By Design D.C. brought in an audience of more than 300 – with tickets at $200 a piece – and organizers said they raised about $200,000 from ticket sales, sponsorships and silent and live auctions.

But the show has more than monetary value.

“It’s like the Oscars for them,” said Sondra Falk, a Centreville, Va., designer who created Gary’s dress. “It’s the one time they’re treated like royalty.”

Before the show, the 28 women and 11 men lined up for professional hair and makeup primping. (The men just got powdered.)

Then, it was time for the final step – the clothes. Some of them were outfitted by Bloomingdales or Neiman Marcus, others by independent designers.

“They treat you like a model,” said Carmen Arregoces de Radke, who wore a dress by designer Luis Machicao. Arregoces de Radke, a D.C.resident who just graduated from American University with a master’s degree in film and video producing, was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ breast cancer three years ago, when she was 25. “You feel pretty – that’s the most important thing.”

Designer Sondra Falk fixes some stitches in the dressing room before the show. Falk designed seven pieces for Cure By Design and said it was the best experience of her career. Photo by Emily Siner

Falk, 48, loaned seven of her creations to the models, including four gowns that she designed specifically for the event. Gary, for example, had a full mastectomy and reconstructive surgery so Falk designed a dress with a low V-cut top that would “show off her new boobs,” Falk said.

Gary put on the dress backstage and tugged on the neckline.

“See how low it is?” she said, laughing.

“You look hot and you know it,” Falk told her.

Falk said it’s been the best experience of her career.

“It was absolutely amazing to see the transformation from someone whose body has gone through tremendous pain to see them happy over something I create. You couldn’t put a price on that,” she said. “As long as I’m sewing, I will be designing for Cure By Design.”