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As told to Margot Adams by Melissa Berry.
My name is Melissa Berry. I am 52 years old, and I am a 10 year triple negative breast cancer survivor. In my first life, I was a fashion and beauty publicist. I have since created a platform called Cancer Fashionista.
So, kind of rewind, I always loved Barbies growing up, always loved shopping and fashion, and I went to school for Fashion Design at Marist College. I went on to live in New York and worked for agencies and in-house brands like BCBG and The Sak handbags, and worked with celebrities, like Sarah Jessica Parker. I loved my career.
There was a lot of breast cancer in my family. When I was about 32, my mom was like, “You know, you really should get tested for the BRCA gene.” I'm busy with the career, I just had a baby, and I thought to myself, I should have my genetic testing so that I know what my course of action is - to be proactive.
Sure enough, I did test positive for the BRCA gene. What does this mean? This means that I needed to be very closely monitored. So, I had an MRI, a clinical, and a mammogram. Pretty much every few months I was going in for something, and I felt like very safe. I was eating kale, doing yoga, doing all the things, and life was good.
[About 10 years ago], I went for a routine mammogram, and before you get a mammogram, they do a clinical where the technician will feel your breasts first to see if there's anything suspicious. And she's like, “I feel a little something.” And she put a sticker on my left breast. That's when I knew I was in trouble.
Sure enough, that very day, I was told that it was, indeed, breast cancer, and it was probably triple negative because of how quickly it popped up. I'm like, hang on a second, is this a weird dream? It's one of these things where you feel like the room is just spinning around.
The next day, I went for my consultation in New York with my breast surgeon. I’m a fashion and beauty publicist, a fashion person, and someone's telling me I have breast cancer. I’m also being told I'm going to lose my breasts. I need a bilateral mastectomy, and I'm going to lose my hair to chemo and probably my lashes and my brows.
I was very lucky. It was stage one. There was no lymph node involvement, so I knew that I wasn't gonna die. But, I’m like, how am I not gonna look like a cancer patient when going to meet with Vogue magazine or the beauty editor at Allure?
So, I went on the internet and I'm like, where is the Vogue of breast cancer? Where do I find the bras, the wigs, the lashes? There's got to be a resource. Nothing was in one place, and I was so frustrated.
This was 10 years ago when Word Press and the mommy blogs were a thing. At the time, my friend Tina was helping me with the kids and other stuff and she’s like, [in her British accent], “Melissa, you ought to start a blog.” And, I'm like, “Tina, I can't even fry an egg right now…. Okay, I'll do it.”
I started just with a list of things that I felt like resonated with me. Because a lot of times you'll see bras that are post-mastectomy and you're like, well that looks like it belongs in a hospital catalog or something weird. It’s not something you'd want to wear. So, I was able to find brands and grab little tips, and I felt it was healing for me, not to just find them for myself, but to share them with my community.
I didn’t have a board meeting or anything and say, “I’m gonna start a brand”, but I was like, I guess I'll put this on Facebook, I guess I'll put this on Instagram. And long story short, I would be asked to keynote or to speak on a panel, and suddenly I hit a fork in the road. I thought, maybe I should do this full time. So during COVID, I actually made the leap.
I started a nonprofit and I went from full-time publicists to full-time breast cancer advocate. I launched a podcast called Dear Cancer, I’m Beautiful. It’s on Apple and also Spotify - I'm at over 100 episodes, I'm proud to say. It's become like a library. I’ve interviewed, for example, someone that does Boudoir Photography for breast cancer patients. I also interview WIG experts, bra designers, clean beauty experts, women that have come up with strip lashes that are great for women that have breast cancer. So ,it's become a real passion project for me and really nothing makes me happier than helping women. I always say, “There’s nothing beautiful about breast cancer, but, I’m happy to be on this side of it and to be able to help other women look and feel beautiful even on their darkest, darkest days.”
I’m also the board chair for the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation. I owe so much of my advocacy work to TNBC Foundation, because, not only do they have incredible resources and education for the newly diagnosed, but they really offer a beautiful community and so much support. It's a true sisterhood.