I try and pay it forward every single day by helping other women who are going through treatment. I like to think of my community as my “little sisters.” A big sister will give offer you all kinds of advice. What to wear on your first date, how to put on eyeshadow. I didn’t have a big sister when I was going through treatment, so I do my best to offer that kind of support to those who need it. I may not be curing the disease, but I’m helping women make wiser, healthier choices that make them look and feel great. I like to believe that my breast cancer workshops will increase awareness among both men and women in the corporate world. Life is busier than ever before. My hope is that my efforts will I bring a higher level of consciousness to the workplace, encouraging employees and employers alike to carve out valuable time for doctor appointments, and especially mammograms.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Berry. Melissa is a 6 year Triple Negative Breast Cancer survivor and Founder of CancerFashionista. She is a breast cancer thriver, recipient of the YWCA of Bergen County’s Beacon Of Light Award, recipient of the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation’s 2016 Courage Award, veteran fashion/beauty publicist, professional speaker and consultant. Melissa has moderated and participated on various panels, addressed pharmaceutical leaders, and has been featured in numerous publications as a source of inspiration. She currently leads #WeThrive, a breast cancer support group for WeWork in NYC. Melissa is now offering corporate breast cancer workshops to organizations nationwide, a source of breast cancer education and inspiration for women across the country.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Melissa! What is your “backstory”?
There was a lot of breast cancer in my family. My mother participated in a research study at a major NYC hospital, and discovered that she had the BRCA1 gene. With such a strong family history and now the discovery that my mother carried the genetic mutation for breast cancer, it was strongly suggested that I get tested as well. I promised myself that if I did test positive for the BRCA gene, I would not look at it like a death threat. Or a cancer diagnosis. I would treat it like a GPS to my health, a road map.
Sure enough, I did test positive for the BRCA1 gene at the age of 32. I was advised to have my ovaries removed by the time I turned 40. I decided that I would NOT make menopause my 40th birthday present to myself so I completed that surgery when I was 39. Along with having my ovaries removed, I was under close surveillance for breast cancer. Every few months I was visiting my oncologist for either a clinical exam, mammogram or ultrasound. I thought there was no way I’d ever get breast cancer because of my due diligence. I was juicing, eating clean, doing yoga. I mean, I even had my ovaries removed!
6 years ago (when I was 41), I visited the doctor for a routine mammogram. Ultimately, I was told that I had Triple Negative Breast Cancer. I was shocked. It literally turned my world upside down. One minute I was fine, the next minute I was in a meeting with a breast surgeon discussing my life expectancy.
Once I knew what my course of treatment was (12 rounds of chemotherapy and a bilateral mastectomy), I thought to myself, how am I going to look normal going through this? I’m a fashion and beauty publicist for heaven’s sake. Meeting with fashion and beauty editors, going to fashion shows. Attending photo shoots. Honestly, I didn’t want to look like a supermodel as I stepped into breast cancer treatment, I just wanted to look like ME.
So I hit the internet, on the hunt for false lashes when you’ve lost your own. Where to find the best wigs, how to prepare yourself to lose your hair due to chemo, what kind of bras to wear as you’re going through breast reconstruction, etc.
I was so frustrated because nothing was in one place, and it was really challenging to find products with style, ones that resonated with me. Most of the post-mastectomy bras that I found looked like something you’d see in a surgical catalog. It was depressing. I thought to myself, where is the Vogue of breast cancer?
So I ended up creating a list of products and experts that I loved. Before I knew it, my Mom, friends and co-workers were asking me for “that list.” They had a friend or family member who was recently diagnosed, and they wanted to help them. A dear friend of mine at the time said to me, why don’t you just start a blog? I thought to myself…I’m going through chemo. I can barely make dinner. I’m going to start a blog?! So I did! This is how Cancer Fashionista was born. Today, I’ve built an incredible community (both online and off) and am now offering corporate breast cancer workshops to companies across the country.
One out of every 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. So if you’ve got 8 women in your office, then you’re a candidate. I’m on a mission to share my story in the hopes that it will educate and empower, and most importantly, encourage women to stay on top of their health and provide the tools they need to make them look and feel great if they (or someone they know) are diagnosed with breast cancer.
Can you share the interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Just a couple of months ago, I received a message through Instagram from a woman named Deborah who lives in Nashville. We never met before. She sent me a note explaining that she received a grant from the AiRs Foundation for her breast reconstruction. Deborah didn’t even know about this foundation before. She learned about it from one of my Instagram posts. I was invited to moderate a panel for the AiRs Foundation in NYC and posted some information and photos.
To learn that I was able to impact someone’s life in the way was incredible. The power of social media! I suddenly felt like I had a magic wand. I hope to help many other women by providing tips and resources. I’m always on the lookout for the best products, experts and organizations that I can share with my community.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I honestly gave this a lot of thought and I can’t think of any, but you are the first ones I’ll share my funny mistake with!
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Yes! I’m extremely excited about the launch of my corporate breast cancer workshops. I just did my first one for The Sak, a wonderful handbag brand. I was their PR Director for 7 years, about 15 years ago. What a thrill to go full circle and return as a breast cancer advocate. I’m looking forward to spreading breast cancer awareness and beauty/fashion advice to many more brands this year!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My father has always inspired me, both personally and professionally. He was there by my side for just about every single one of my chemotherapy treatments. So when I decided to launch Cancer Fashionista, not only did he applaud my efforts. He helped me every step of the way, from the launching of my website, ideas for events and everything in between. I also need to acknowledge my dear friend Tina. She was the one who encouraged me to turn my “list” into a blog. So glad I took her advice! Thanks Tina!
Can you share your top three “lifestyle tweaks” that will help people feel great?
My top 3 are movement, meditation and sleep.
I don’t work out just to stay in shape, I do it to clear my mind each morning. Orange Theory is addicting, I just love it!
Meditation makes me feel balanced. Even on my busiest days, I just find a 5 minute guided meditation on YouTube and zone out for a few. It’s the best time investment one can make.
Sleep is something that I’ve always struggled with, but I’m determined to perfect it. I apply lavender oil to my pulse points and put on a Yoga Nidra meditation, and that usually does the trick.
Is there a particular book that made an impact on you? Can you share a story?
I’ve always loved The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Here they are:
I don’t have a particular story to share about this book but I can tell you this. Whenever I’m in any kind of dilemma, whether it be personal or business related, all I have to do is refer back to these words. They can be applied to just about any situation, and I always gain a better perspective when I apply these rules.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I like to believe that my breast cancer workshops will increase awareness among both men and women in the corporate world. Life is busier than ever before. My hope is that my efforts will I bring a higher level of consciousness to the workplace, encouraging employees and employers alike to carve out valuable time for doctor appointments, and especially mammograms.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I would say that my success is my breast cancer survivorship. I try and pay it forward every single day by helping other women who are going through treatment. I like to think of my community as my “little sisters.” A big sister will give offer you all kinds of advice. What to wear on your first date, how to put on eyeshadow. I didn’t have a big sister when I was going through treatment, so I do my best to offer that kind of support to those who need it. I may not be curing the disease, but I’m helping women make wiser, healthier choices that make them look and feel great.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
I had so many great ideas for Cancer Fashionista! I worked with Michael Dermer, Founder of The Lonely Entrepreneur and his advice to me was to “choose one horse to ride on.” When you’re starting a new business or project and you’re doing everything on your own, it’s best to hone in on the one thing that you’re really passionate about, and that one thing that you believe will make the most impact. Then just go for it!
2. Trust your intuition
I find myself asking everyone for input, for their advice. Ultimately, I really do know the answer so I’ve learned to listen to that inner voice. It’s usually right! For example, every Monday I post a #MondayMantra on Instagram. I spend a lot of time finding just the perfect quote. Something that will really resonate with my audience. When I start asking everyone what they think of a mantra, I know that it’s just not right to post. When I laugh or cry after reading the mantra, then I know it’s a good one! It has to evoke emotion, good or bad. If it’s just kind of in between I don’t think it’s worth putting it out there.
3. Say yes to MOST things, then get strategic later on
It’s great to have a business plan and a basic strategy. But so many incredible unplanned opportunities have come my way; events, collaborations and partnerships that were never even part of my initial plan. Some of these unexpected initiatives have given the Cancer Fashionista brand more exposure than I could have ever dreamed of! For example, The Susan G. Komen Greater NYC Chapter invited me to be one of their ambassadors for their upcoming Race For the Cure. This was not part of my business plan. However, I did say yes and as a result I’ve met so many other incredible thrivers and will be leading a team to raise money for The Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation.
4. Keep It Simple
Sometimes I think it’s too simple, then it’s not good enough. When you’re building a business, you need to work smart and leverage your time and resources wisely. For example, I was unsure about doing videos of myself talking about new products because I didn’t have a fancy room to film it in or my own videographer, for that matter. It’s important for me to share resources, so I just started doing fun little clips on my computer right in my home office. And you what? Everyone loves the authenticity and simplicity. Great lesson!
5. More Expensive Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Better
I always thought that I’d develop really cool promotional items that I could leave behind at meetings and events. I realized that I needed these sooner rather than later, but didn’t want to spend a ton of money on “swag.” I did some research and ended up producing these really great nail files with my logo on them. They say “Girl, You’ve Got This.” The response is always so positive when I hand these out. Everyone loves the messaging and a nail file is something everyone can use.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo. But what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.”
— Oprah Winfrey
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Oprah Winfrey would be my top choice for a lunch date. She sees life as though it’s a classroom. I love that about her. She has mastered the art of the interview, she has a way of connecting with people and their stories that I find magical.
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