Feeling Gorgeous with Melissa Berry, founder of Cancerfashionista
In an interview about her preventative oophorectomy and breast cancer treatment, Melissa shares her inspiration for starting her platform and her beauty philosophy.
Brilliantly: I would love to know how your experience with breast cancer inspired the Cancerfashionista platform, which you use to give such helpful and inspiring tips for women who are trying to feel their best.
Melissa: Absolutely. There was a lot of breast cancer in my family on the maternal side. When I was about 32, my mom suggested that I get tested for the BRCA gene. Initially, I feared having the test because if it was positive I thought I’d feel like a walking time bomb.
At some point, I flipped an emotional switch and realized that genetic testing could be the roadmap to my health. Having the knowledge meant that I could take the proper steps towards preventing cancer.
Brilliantly: That’s a difficult switch to flip- moving from fear of the unknown to empowerment.
Melissa: Yes, it was but I think perhaps that was my way of dealing with it. To turn something negative into a positive. Ultimately, I did test positive for BRCA1. My oncologist recommended having my ovaries removed by the time I was 40. I decided to do it at 39. I’d had my two amazing daughters, and I did not want the removal of my ovaries to be my 40th birthday present. I knew this would spin me into menopause, and I wanted to really enjoy celebrating my 40th birthday.
Brilliantly: Surgical menopause is life-altering, and there are parts people don't talk openly about.
Melissa: Oh, completely. It's another level of feeling de-feminized when you really shouldn't. But you can't help it, ovaries are part of what makes you a woman. Even though I knew I was done having children, knowing that I could never conceive again was hard to wrap my head around.
Brilliantly: Instantly triggering a physical and emotional life change must have been really challenging.
Melissa: It felt like the right thing to do to stay healthy. But it made it all the more surprising when a few years later I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I really thought I did everything I could to prevent it.
I was 42 and going for a routine mammogram. It was one of those busy days where I was so focused on work. I represented a luxury watch brand at the time (as their publicist) and was trying to get their products into Vogue magazine. There was a huge line in the waiting room and I remember feeling so impatient.
When they finally called me in, the clinician felt my left breast, and immediately found a lump. Then I had a mammogram and an ultrasound, followed by a deep needle biopsy. It was breast cancer.
Brilliantly: You’d been being so careful and had already taken action to prevent that.
Melissa: Exactly. My diagnosis definitely was a big surprise.
Once I knew it was Stage 1 Triple Negative Breast Cancer with no node involvement, I was able to wrap my head around my course of treatment. I knew I could get through it.
Brilliantly: You have such a positive attitude. What were the things that you did for yourself to try and feel well?
Melissa: As a beauty publicist, I started thinking about how to work during treatment without looking like I had cancer. I was constantly meeting with beauty editors and going to fashion shows and photoshoots, and wanted to look and feel my best.
Brilliantly: And there really wasn’t anything stylish or cool for breast cancer patients in 2013.
Melissa: Not at all! I looked for head wraps and for beautiful recovery bras, but couldn’t find much. There was very little information online about lashes, wigs, and safe beauty products. I mean, what to do when you don't have any lashes at all? You can't just pop on false eyelashes.
Throughout my treatment, I kept wondering, Where is the 'Vogue' of breast cancer? There must be one place where all of these resources exist. I simply couldn’t find a one-stop resource.
Brilliantly: There is much more available now, but sometimes it’s still hard to find or you’re just simply not prepared for what is going to happen.
Melissa: There are so many things the doctor doesn't tell you. For example, a satin pillowcase is great to sleep on when you’re losing your hair. The weft of a cotton pillowcase can pull on your fragile hairs and cause discomfort.
Brilliantly: And you need that information for every phase from diagnosis to life post-treatment.
Melissa: The whole experience is an evolution and you have to find what works for you at each stage. I found ways to hack my fashion outfits to create what I called “chemo chic.” I wanted to feel relaxed and comfortable, but pulled together. I’d pair my favorite pair of jeans with a cozy cardigan and a loose-fitting tank underneath. It’s all about adjusting to what feels good on your body, but also makes you feel confident. Comfort without sacrificing personal style is what’s most important when you’re going through treatment.
Brilliantly: It’s awesome that you found ways to feel beautiful and like yourself throughout.
Melissa: I gained so much weight after chemo. I didn't really invest in a lot of clothing but in hindsight, I wish I had gotten a few new pieces. Now I encourage women to meet themselves where they are. If you're 10 pounds heavier, perfect, let's get something that looks amazing on you.
Brilliantly: I love that and couldn’t agree more. We have to be kind to ourselves and The Cancerfashionista is really the embodiment of your philosophy on feeling good, looking your best, and treating yourself well.
Melissa: Cancerfashionista is a really unique platform that allows me to share products that help women, as well as support women who started businesses because of their own breast cancer journey- “cancerpreneurs.” While I was in treatment, it helped keep me sane and gave me some joy.
Helping other women heal helped me heal and continues to do so. I never had a big sister, and I feel like when you have breast cancer, you need a big sister.
Brilliantly: We all benefit from someone shepherding us through big life’s moments.
Melissa: A big sister tells you what to wear on a first date or how to kiss. When you have breast cancer, you want someone to tell you where to get a wig, find bras, or pretty head wraps. That's my mission, to be your big sister. This is how all of my worlds collided, fashion, beauty, cancer- Boom!
Brilliantly: That’s awesome. There are people who, like you, have such a wonderful positive energy and make things feel less overwhelming and scary.
Melissa: I remember getting ready for date night with my then-husband and looking in the mirror and thinking that I hated the way I looked. I don't want anyone to ever feel that way.
Brilliantly: When you look in the mirror and don't recognize yourself, parts of your body are missing, it can easily snowball into losing your identity.
Melissa: I want to help women feel beautiful and more like themselves. Some days, just being able to get out of bed and putting on something other than pajamas is a victory. Other days, you’ll have enough energy to take tiny steps that make a big difference. I try and encourage women to put a little lipstick on, or a cute outfit.
Brilliantly: You've used the word beauty a handful of times and I think beauty is so much more preferable to the word “pretty." Beauty, in my mind, is about an inner quality. And when you can get dressed, or put on some makeup and feel confident, it allows you to portray your inner beauty and your inner strength when it may have felt like it was stripped from you.
Melissa: I used to think I looked like a ghost of my former self. That made me so sad. When you lose your hair and your breasts and, in my case, your ovaries, you feel de-feminized. It’s like you've been mugged. It was a loss of control over my body and femininity. Breasts and hair are what made me feel girly.
The lesson that I learned, and what I try to share with other women, is you could shave your hair off, be flat, and still be gorgeous because of your inner light and essence. You're you. Your sense of humor, wit, intelligence, compassion, and ability to help other people are all what make you beautiful. There are so many other attributes besides what's on the outside. But in the world that we live in outer beauty is important, too.
I try and give women simple tools to help them feel the best they can. You can do easy things that make you feel more like yourself. Even if you don’t have the energy or desire to spend a ton of time on a beauty routine, there are so many great all-in-one products. Like, SaltyGirl and Thrive Causemetics that make products that are easy to use and good for you.
Brilliantly: There is something to be said for a great all-in-one product because makeup can feel overwhelming. You give people such simple, little tips that it feels easy.
Melissa: There are plenty of tools out there, both fashion and beauty related, that can help you look like yourself, like you before breast cancer. I think no matter what, whether you had treatment a month ago or ten years ago, you always keep a piece of it with you. The best we can do is help each other to keep moving forward and embrace who you are today.
1. Cardigans are a must. If anyone asks you what you need…tell them to get you a cozy cardigan! Even in the warmer months, waiting and treatment rooms can be chilly. I love this one from Barefoot Dreams, available at Nordstrom.
2. Another fave of mine are these really cool Faux Leather Moto leggings from Spanx. These are so versatile and fun! You can wear them with your favorite sweater, t-shirt, or even top it off with a blazer and a great pair of boots for a more dressed-up look. I always get compliments when I wear these.
3. Miena Robe - I love all things AnaOno!
Melissa Berry is a seven-year triple negative breast cancer survivor and the founder of Cancer Fashionista. Throughout her breast cancer journey, which included chemotherapy and surgery, Melissa struggled to look and feel her best during such a difficult chapter of her life. She began scouring the internet for beauty tips and tricks to help manage the appearance-related side effects of her experience, as well as for niche products that would help with her recovery from treatment. Melissa started to keep track of the best advice and items that she found, and she then created the CancerFashionista.com blog to share her recommendations with other women facing similar diagnoses.
Cancer Fashionista quickly grew in popularity with its readers and followers on social media, and Melissa has become a trusted voice in the breast cancer community. She has been tapped by several media outlets, including the Associated Press, Self, and The Huffington Post, to share both product recommendations and self-care tips for cancer patients.
Melissa has been recognized for her outstanding support of women affected by breast cancer by many organizations. In 2016, she received the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation’s Courage Award, and last year she was honored with the YWCA Bergen County’s Beacon of Light Award.