Still fabulous after breast cancer

Laurel Sopher makes the perfect pin-up as she laughs and flashes a bit of thigh in her pink trench coat.

Two years ago, Sopher was chosen as one of 14 breast cancer survivors to pose for the Pink Ribbon Pin-Ups calendar and ultimately became the cover girl. The project was the brainchild of Kaitlyn Regehr, host of the Slice Network’s ReVamped, and executive producer Jordan Balaban. Regehr was prompted to begin the project after she was approached by a breast cancer survivor who had been asked to pose for a photo shoot revealing her mastectomy scar but was uncomfortable with the idea.

“She didn’t want to be immortalized as a victim,” Regehr said. “And although these projects are amazing in raising awareness, I became concerned about what it does for the individual woman and how she views herself post-treatment.”

After a bit of thought, Regehr assembled a team to help bring the calendar to life and worked with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation (CBCF) to find survivors willing to share their stories.

“We were so naive going in,” she said. “And we were really struck with how emotional the process was.”

“We had this idea that some of the women would want to be photographed without their wigs, but they wanted to be feminine and it became about exploring their femininity and womanliness post-treatment,” Regehr said.

Regehr describes the calendar as a “celebration of fabulous women” and aimed to create a fun environment as she and her team pampered the women while turning them into 1950s-style pin-up models.

Sopher, who first discovered a lump in her breast in 2000 while seven weeks pregnant, received an e-blast from the CBCF about the project. After having a double mastectomy and dealing with infertility issues, she was excited at the prospect of participating in a project that would show a positive post-cancer image.

“I sent in a couple of pictures of me and my kids on the beach building sand castles,” Sopher said. “Then one of my husband and I out at the coast standing on a cliff right over the ocean and Kaitlyn contacted me saying, ‘You have what we want.’”

Sopher remembers how difficult it was to deal with breast cancer while pregnant with her first child. Though doctors initially refused to believe a pregnant woman could have cancer, Sopher eventually received a diagnosis and was told she would need chemotherapy. She hesitated to begin out of fear for what the treatment might do to her baby.

“I told them, ‘I don’t care what happens, you are not taking this baby,’” she said.

Though her doctors assured her the treatment would be safe, Sopher refused it unless they could connect her with someone who had gone through the process. Her husband, Mark, found an online group called Pregnant with Cancer, and within 24 hours Sopher was contacted by women who received chemotherapy while pregnant.

“I had three different women email me pictures of their babies,” Sopher said. “They all said (to) have the chemo (and that) the baby would be fine.’”

Despite their reassurances, fear lived in Sopher’s heart. She tears up as she remembers the day her first son, Alexander, was born.

“I prayed we made the right decision,” she said. “And he was born with hair while I didn’t have any … so I knew the chemo didn’t get him.”

Three years later, Sopher gave birth to twin boys after her niece donated an egg to her. As she reflects on her life thus far, she understands things could have been very different.

“I look back now and some days it seems so far away. Then when I’m recounting my story, it’s still front and centre,” Sopher said. “I never want to forget because if I (do), it’s not going to mean anything for anybody else.”

Joanie Raine, another Pink Ribbon Pin-Up who dazzles in diamonds and a white satin dress, says she became involved as a way to show women that there is life after cancer.

The 52-year-old wife, mother of three and grandmother of five resides in Calgary and has battled breast cancer twice in her life, most recently in August 2010. After receiving the e-blast from the CBCF, and a little encouragement from her daughters, Raine submitted a few photos for the 2009 casting call and was chosen as a model.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “I wanted to show women that you can go on to have a full life because when you’re in the midst of chemo you wonder, ‘Am I ever going to feel normal again?’ But you get your life back.”

After her most recent diagnosis, Raine had a double mastectomy in May 2011. She says this has been the hardest and most emotionally draining part of her journey.

“I think I would have agreed even if the doctor said we need your arm amputated,” she said. “(But) it wasn’t so much about sexuality it’s that women are meant to have breasts. That’s the way we were created.”

After her surgery Raine vowed to move forward and remains positive by spending time with her family, maintaining her hobbies and exploring new ones.

“I started painting for therapeutic reasons and people started (asking) to purchase my work,” she said. “I’m having my first art show (this year).”

Having a supportive family throughout her journey has been important to Raine. However, one of her biggest lessons was in the importance of friendships.

“Some of the friends I thought would gather around me when I was sick didn’t know how to handle me because I had the big C word,” Raine said. “I learned the simplest thing can mean so much … sometimes I’d have a friend just come up and hug me, and there were no words spoken but they didn’t need words.”

Raine’s ultimate goal is to hold on to her positivity and help other women cope with their battle, especially through the power of small gestures.

“When you’re in the middle of a diagnosis, you need hope that there can be life after cancer,” she said. “I don’t want to forget about others; I want to go through this experience being better, not bitter.”

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