Hands on a Hard Body

I was invited, as a breast cancer warrior, to model and help fundraise for Art Bra Austin.



Photo courtesy of Flashbax23

In 1998 I had just moved to Austin and was taking up the sport of rowing. I had an entire summer to get used to a new job, new friends, and a new sport as my son was with his father in far away El Paso. Amongst this group of people (some of whom I count as my closest friends today) was a guy who talked incessantly about this documentary he had seen called “Hands on a Hard Body” — the story of about 24 people from a small Texas town who gathered around a Nissan truck to see who could keep their hands on it for the longest amount of time in order to be the winner of this “hardbody” Nissan pickup truck.

There are more ironies in here that refer to my latest breast cancer adventure than I care to admit to, but I will say that I feel strongly that there have been at least 24 people involved to a high level with my breast cancer care and subsequent reconstruction and recovery process. While I wish my course would have only been 24 hours in the making, I can say that the 24 hours that passed between the “It’s Cancer” call and my “Let’s Remove them Both” discussion with my doctor was worthy of winning a new car but (and here is the cherry on the top of this) I have driven or been driven to most of my appointments in my trusty Nissan Truck!

I know that you are all wondering how the heck I am going to tie this all together – and I will as I share the best adventure to date: The Art Bra Austin event benefitting the Breast Cancer Resource Centers of Texas. I was invited, as a breast cancer warrior, to model and help fundraise for this important organization. I knew that local artists are given an opportunity to submit art bras for local breast cancer patients, survivors, and warriors to wear, but I knew I could only do this if my art was created by someone who truly knew me. The Art Bra organizers said, “Absolutely!

While going over this possibility with my great friend, rower, and amazing designer, Marilyn Flanegan, the desire surfaced to create something unique and different and yet, tie it to our love of rowing. The answer came to Maril like a bolt of bright light: carbon fiber. In rowing, the boats and the oars are made of this fabric-like substance. It is the strongest material known as thousands of small strands of “fiber” are woven together to make this weave used in high performance cars, equipment, jewelry, and prosthetics. Molded to a certain shape, resin is vacuum pulled through each of the strands of fiber, and the carbon fiber weave is bonded, giving it a hard, shell-like quality. We both were excited about the idea and Marilyn has a degree in industrial design so I knew she had the right background to work her idea through. I was right, and the design was nothing short of fabulous.

This wearable art shows my journey in a single, reflective, outer shell of carbon fiber that hugs my body and supports my newly created chest while allowing my inner armor of light and brightness to emerge. As one looks at it now you would never know the journey Marilyn and I have gone through but it is without a doubt beautiful, strong, gorgeous, and powerful – all of which describe each of the cancer survivors, thrivers, and warriors out there.

This is my story of “Hands on a Hardbody,” also known as what I truly learned during the Carbon Fiber Bra Adventure.

 

It is important that I mention at the top of this story that my friendships have been a life support for me through my ordeal – both rowing and at my work. When Marilyn and I started thinking about carbon fiber as a material for the bra, I honestly had no idea what it looked like in its unfinished form. I only discovered this after I asked a boat manufacturer in Seattle if she would be willing to help us with this adventure. She sent us scrap pieces of product as they cut it from the boat shells.

I was not at all prepared for what I saw. Seriously.

This stuff unravels, unweaves, and literally pulls apart in your hands. Not being a seamstress (honestly, if one of my shirts loses a button, it is a donation to the Goodwill), even I knew we weren’t going to be able to design anything that would allow Marilyn an opportunity to use one of her three sewing machines. Then, as I sat at my work desk one day, I asked a co-worker what he knew about carbon fiber and working with it. It is here that I fess to my day job – I work for a large prosthetic and orthopedic company. I knew that we used carbon fiber for the prosthetic limbs but did not know the extent of the talent I was about to tap into.

Michael, our robot and contraption designer, was my first bottomless pit of information. He helped get a foam mold of my torso with a scan using a product called Insignia. Robots that he has helped design then took a large foam square and began the intricate, precision scultping to create a foam mold that Marilyn used to design on. Then there was Kevin. Kevin is this wonderous, friendly, solve the problem kind of co-worker everyone wishes they knew or had on their team. I knew him from an event I had put together about a year ago so I sent him a simple e-mail where the subject line was something like “I need five minutes” and the only sentence in the email was: “What can you tell me about working with carbon fiber?” He immediately invited us up to his clinic to talk.

When we went up to see Kevin, and ask a few questions in order to get ourselves more prepared – the visit turned into, “Ready to get naked? We need a mold of your torso.” The foam product wouldn’t work for the vacuum process so in about a minute, Stephanie was there with special “clothing,” and I went from work wear to this long underwear type appearance and the gypsym rolling began – I actually became a hardbody while they rolled this plaster-like product around me and formed it against each crevasse and dip. Stephanie took her hands and pushed in so there would be cleavage in the final mold, and Marilyn happily snapped photos as I walked like an Egyptian around the patient care room to dry.

Kevin cut away the now hard plaster cast of my torso and escaped to the back wonderlab where he would fill the mold with another product, allow it to harden and then tear away the plaster casting to reveal a concrete-like mold of me and my girls. This torso mold was then smoothed out, the carbon fiber was pulled over it, and in tribute to the boat manufacturer who had so graciously sent scrap pieces a month earlier, Maril used strips of these scraps on the outside of the carbon fiber to create the “bones” of the bustier. She then inserted the entire mold in a large plastic bag for the resin vacuum process. Chad, the clinic technician, worked with Marilyn to push out air bubbles and get a smooth finish. Marilyn drew the design she wanted to follow and cut the pattern out and smoothed the edges so they wouldn’t cut into my skin.

For the next two months, Marilyn worked on the “inner shell” of this masterpiece -thousands of beads were individually selected, painstakingly hand-strung, and then wrapped in flat circles which Marilyn then sewed onto the fabric that would cover my jelly boobs under the carbon fiber bustier. This fabric was ‘attached” directly to my skin through the use of liquid latex. A couple of layers were brushed on to the fabric circles and also onto to my body. Once dried, the two stick upon contact and nothing falls off until the wearer decides to remove it by gently pulling it away from the skin. Now, if you cringed when you read that please remember – I have no nerve endings. Those were all cut during my bi-lateral mastectomy so I had to remind Maril to keep a happy face because while I couldn’t feel the pulling, watching her grimmace let me know she thought it should hurt.

The big night finally arrived and on June 7, I participated in Art Bra Austin 2014. The piece was selected as one of six live auction items – meaning it would be sold while I walked the stage and engaged the crowd to raise the bidding. I did just that. I worked that crowd and decided that when they left for the evening, they would remember the carbon fiber bustier (which I should note, is something that runs up zero results on a Google search). To increase the bidding, I promised I would “take it off” and man, a bidding war ensued and yes, I took off the bustier in one easy pull in order to expose the jeweled masterpieces which covered my chest and were half-way hidden beneath it.

It was a powerful moment and in that split second I was overcome with a peace that I haven’t felt in almost a year. I knew that on this night, in that moment, I was in the driver’s seat. Breast cancer has a way of giving you doubts and moments of reflection that aren’t always positive but on that Saturday, there was nothing but happiness and when I worked the stage along with 69 other survivors, I knew that cancer no longer has a hold on me.

I had a cheering section for the evening and as they cheered me on, took photo after photo and yes, carried out the bidding war that had been planned but kept secret from me, I realized that my “hard body” wasn’t the gypsym that wrapped me in the early process of this journey or the carbon fiber bustier that fit me snug like a wrap bracelet; I am the “hard body” – my spirit and my humor. My fortune has been to choose strong people to have in my life and these people, which number far more than 24, have each had a hand on me this entire time. While I wasn’t a truck they could win, there have always been hands here to hold me up, hold me close, and let me know that I am not alone.

Writers note: The Breast Cancer Resource Centers of Texas is based here in Austin, Texas. As a non-profit organization, they rely on donations in order to assist more than 2500 local women going through breast cancer. Their mission is to ensure that no woman goes through breast cancer alone. If you would like to donate, please visit their website at www.bcrc.org.

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