by Sonya Keshwani, two year breast cancer survivor & founder of StyleEsteem Wardrobe
There are many things no one tells you about getting diagnosed with breast cancer at 29 years old. How you will meet physical limits you didn’t know existed, and then keep pushing beyond them. How your entire identity – past, present and future – will be viewed through the lens of your diagnosis. And how the diagnosis and healing process are much more challenging and tough than pinkwashed TV commercials would have you believe.
Through all these instances, every cancer patient experiences moments when they have to make a decision to either see themselves as a continuous human being experiencing cancer and healing, or as a new person who is living a second chance life. I saw a third option for myself. I decided that the person who was going to be a “survivor” deserved to wear her challenges as beautiful accomplishments, while also appreciating the fullness of her new life.
Since a young age, fashion had been a medium for expressing my joy and vibrancy. So when I lost my hair to chemo, I channeled that same approach into the creation of fashionable turbans. Through the lens of beautiful fabrics and patterns, I learned that challenging situations are wrought with beauty and sparkle. I started the shift from seeing my bald head as a symbol of cancer, to seeing myself – my true character and strength – as beyond skin deep. I went from creating new styles between chemo sessions, to launching a company that empowers women through cancer and hair loss, called StyleEsteem Wardrobe. This company and the mission to help others became my “why” on the path to healing.
One of the greatest blessings of my “why” is how it has enabled me to connect with other profound individuals and organizations on a similar mission – to improve and empower the quality of life for cancer patients. Earlier this year, my “why” brought me to A Silver Lining Foundation gala in Chicago, where I met Twist Out Cancer Advisory Board Member Gudrun Wu Snyder. We instantly connected as she told me about Twist Out Cancer, a place where cancer patients’ stories are turned into inspirational works of art. Their mission and the story of their founder, Jenna Benn Shersher, spoke to me like a glittering beacon of hope, similar to the one that inspired me during the creation of StyleEsteem. Right away, I knew I wanted to get involved, so Gudrun encouraged me to apply to the Brushes with Cancer program.
When I was selected as an inspiration for the Brushes with Cancer 2020 Chicago cohort, it was an emotional experience for me. Like we are told when we are young “you can be anything you want to be when you grow up”, I similarly told myself this as a cancer patient. That I could be anything through cancer – inspirational, fashionable, fierce and graceful. Two years into my survivorship, what I had told myself in my heart was being amplified by others in my community, and this alone was such a powerful experience for me.
My pairing with my artist, Sujata Gazder, a talented, intuitive and bold fashion designer, couldn’t have been more perfect. She saw beneath the surface of my diagnosis, into a story of family unity, broken stereotypes, and audacious hope. She saw my diagnosis as a catalyst for taking back control of my joy and my purpose in life. And we both agreed that hair loss was not loss entirely, it was the adornment of something new and beautiful in my life.
Due to the pandemic, as well as Sujata being based out of Chicago and me being based out of New York, creating the final masterpiece had unique requirements from each of us. Phone catch ups, Zoom fittings, and photo sneak peeks of her work in progress. The dress beautifully and perfectly honored each element of my survivorship, from my hair journey and attitude, to my family and spiritual roots. I was amazed at how Sujata could create something I so deeply connected with after knowing me for such a short period of time.
Outside of my experience with Sujata, being part of this cohort has bonded me with countless other individuals who found their own path to beauty through the darkness of diagnosis. I am proud to stand among them as a survivor and a supporter. And I am so grateful for this space where our stories are transformed into inspiring works of art and unforgettable experiences.
Today I look forward to our virtual gala where we will celebrate each other’s stories, and to seeing my gown in person for the first time when I meet Sujata. This process has taught me that diagnosis is like a crystal. Whoever is holding your crystal in their hands can see new beauty, color and light in your story. And when you exercise vulnerability and trust to let that happen, you can find new meaning and purpose in your own path.