Kerry Churchill recalls the exact moment when she knew she had the same cancer that killed her aunt at age 52 — the same cancer that’s prompted doctors to tell her mother she has months to live, and herself a couple of years.
She was on the beach in August 2015 when she says, “It felt like my breast was going to break open the skin was so tight.”
“I touched it and everything in me knew I was the first one in this generation to have the family affliction.”
Since she was first diagnosed that year, Churchill’s had numerous operations, including a double mastectomy, and many rounds of chemotherapy.
“It was just one thing after another. It was a series of, I think, six surgeries that year… but I was still smiling.”
Still, at one point when she thought for sure she was dying, she told her aunt who was visiting that her will was in the closet and asked her to make sure her children “knew how much momma loves them.”
At that time, she was also trying to help take care of her own mother while raising her children as a single mother.
She went six weeks without earning any money at one point, after using up all of her sick leave and employment insurance.
“It’s hard enough when you’re fighting for your life … I got through it because I have a beautiful family, but I was thinking, gosh, there’s people out there who don’t have anybody. I see it in the chemo room. I’ve never gone to chemo alone, but you see people who are alone.”
For a while Churchill was in remission. Then, this past January she was enjoying a movie at the cinema with her son — he was leaving the next day to do a tour with the military.
Sitting in the theatre, something told her to touch her neck.
She felt a lump.
“The monster had returned, and my son had to leave the country knowing that I had metastatic terminal breast cancer.”
“This is where ‘Breastless and Beautiful’ was born: two women in a basement, both single mothers, and one whose dying wish was to create a calendar, leaving a legacy of support for patients that cannot afford the side effects of cancer.” –Dana Metcalfe
For Churchill, that meant more time away from work and living on very little money, as well as six months of chemotherapy.
Doctors told her the average lifespan for people with this diagnosis is two to three years.
In spite of the doctor’s prognosis, Churchill said she’s “gonna kick this to the curb” — but she also wants to make her time count.
That’s why she and a group of women are spending their Sunday preparing for a special kind of photo shoot — for a 2019 calendar called “Breastless and Beautiful”. Sunday was the first of several shoots featuring models who have or are in remission from breast cancer.
The calendar sales will go directly to the Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Centre Patient and Family Support Fund — money that’s available to all cancer patients in the province.
The women hope funds raised through the calendar sales will help ease for others the burden they’ve come to know too well. People often speak about the physical and mental challenges cancer brings, but the financial burden is equally as difficult for many families.
The idea for the calendar came about through a chance meeting.
Dana Metcalfe’s Salt Box Studio salon in St. Philip’s hosts ‘Karma Days’ — a day for people with cancer to get pampered.
Churchill came to one of those Karma Days while she was in remission, and the two women kept in touch.
Not long after, Churchill found the lump in her neck and she called Metcalfe.
“This is where Breastless and Beautiful was born,” said Metcalfe. “Two women in a basement, both single mothers, and one whose dying wish was to create a calendar, leaving a legacy of support for patients that cannot afford the side-effects of cancer.”
The photos in the calendar will tell stories of inspiration and celebration.
“The whole journey is hard mentally and emotionally, and I hope that this just gives people hope. Like, look at us! We’re here and we’re dressing up in dresses and wigs and we’re having so much fun, and we’re beautiful whether we have hair or not – whether we have breasts or not.” –Kerry Churchill
The initial plan was for Churchill and her mother to be pictured in an oversized bird’s nest to symbolize rebirth from their struggle, but cancer has a way of changing plans.
Sunday morning, Churchill’s mother slipped in the tub.
“Her ribs are so thin they break all the time and she was in too much pain (to come),” said Churchill as her eyes brimmed with tears.
Metcalfe applied Churchill’s makeup, then had to wipe the foundation off and start over with a new, more moisturizing kind because Churchill’s skin is so dry from the chemotherapy.
The other women in the room nodded in understanding, and they chatted about some of those often not-talked-about realities of living with cancer.
“I’m not vain, but it’s hard to look in the mirror when you’re bald and your breasts are gone,” said Churchill. “I said, I’ve got to do something that will help love and uplift other women like me.”
“I just want to make as much money as possible to give to that fund, and I hope that (the calendar) shows women that they’re beautiful no matter what life throws at them, and that you’re loved.
“All of these women here, we’ve all shared the same crappy journey — cancer in any form is crap. The whole journey is hard mentally and emotionally, and I hope that this just gives people hope. Like, look at us! We’re here and we’re dressing up in dresses and wigs and we’re having so much fun, and we’re beautiful whether we have hair or not — whether we have breasts or not.”
Metcalfe said the group is seeking help from the community in the form of partners and sponsorships, and it’s still looking for two more models who have or have had breast cancer.
People can get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and by liking their Facebook page of the same name.
Pre-orders for the calendar will soon be available online at www.breastlessandbeautiful.ca, and it’s set to be in stores September 29.