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Beauty After Breast Cancer

Five atlanta women share their inspirational experiences during breast cancer month.

From left: Becca Brett Leish (dress, $650, by Gio Guerreri; tights, $14, by DKNY; Kasper booties, $200, by Pelle Moda; silver ring and earrings, price upon request, by Uno de 50), Jill Binkley (muslin black combo top, $595, and skirt, $445, by Hilton Hollis; Leoline black patent heels, $195, by Tootsies), Cati Diamond Stone (Jupe Noir skirt, $475, by Paule Ka; leather jacket, $990, by Anveglosa; gold necklace, $325, and gold earrings, $75, by Julie Collection; Cleary black suede heels, $165, by Pelle Moda), Dr. April Speed (cream dress, $1,390, by Gio Guerrerri; bangles, $325, by Ashley Pittman; taupe dark kid suede heels, $165, by Pelle Moda), Lila Hertz (pants, $595, by Lela Rose; top, $625, by Paule Ka); all at Tootsies, Shops Around Lenox.

That’s the beauty in breast cancer—the pulling together of those whom you love and who love you. My parents, who stayed with me through surgery and my first chemotherapy treatment, were scared to death, but at my side. My brother, Lew, taking two days out of his insane schedule to be with me at the Cleveland Clinic for a battery of tests and talk post-diagnosis. My brother, David, calling me at all hours to check in and just talk. My brother, John, staying with me in Cincinnatti and having the best chats ever. My brother, Michael, flying to Cincinnatti to drive me to Atlanta for Christmas and back because my doctor wouldn’t let me fly. My sister, Caroline, checking in constantly and sending absurdly wonderful care packages. My dear friends, who were with me every step of the way.

And, yes, as you’ll see from the ladies who follow, there is a keener appreciation of life and a greater sense of purpose and compassion after diagnosis. I believe you learn what is important as you travel through this journey. It is your fight alone, but those who are there to support you are the ones that keep you going. Thank you to everyone, you have my undying love.

The commonality of our collective experiences is uncanny. Here, my conversations with five incredible women who have also been touched by breast cancer.

Becca Brett Leish The daughter of a woman who lost her brief, but courageous, battle with breast cancer, Leish says she had to actually say the words “Mom has breast cancer” for the reality to sink in. Diagnosed a month after her son’s wedding, her mother was glowing as she watched her first child marry. Ten months later she was gone—after a positive, yet hard-fought battle. Leish learned during this time that being present and positive helped, as did making traditions that have carried on. Her goal for her own life? “To live a life that would make her proud.” The experience drove Leish to get involved locally, ultimately landing her on the Komen Atlanta board. Her takeaway of this personal experience? “Everyone says it’s a club you don’t want to join, but there is this true sisterhood that comes along with it. [The diagnosis] impacts the entire family, not just the person.”

Jill Binkley “My breast cancer journey taught me the hard truth that we’re just one phone call away from our knees. For me, that call came twice,” remembers Binkley. “I was stage 3. I’m pretty lucky to be here.” After her first diagnosis in 2000, Binkley found that there weren’t a lot of answers to questions she had as treatment and recovery unfolded. Hence TurningPoint, the group she founded in 2003. It’s a local nonprofit whose mission is to provide medical rehabilitation, physical therapy, exercise and massage programs. Not affiliated with any hospital, TurningPoint is community-based, now serving more than 350 women per year in the greater Atlanta area. Her goal is twofold: caring for women and trying to get more women cared for. Her advice? “Most of us get through this and come out on the other side. All of us are extremely fearful, but we get through it. It’s okay to reach out as you need to—you don’t have to travel alone.”

Cati Diamond Stone “I view life differently because I’ve been given a second chance, and I’m not going to waste this second chance. I always had a lust for life, but I really have a lust now.” Stone, a former trial attorney and current executive director for Komen Atlanta, was diagnosed with stage 3 aggressive breast cancer during a routine gynecological exam a week after she stopped nursing her then 14-month-old child. Two weeks after diagnosis, she ran her first Race for the Cure and hasn’t looked back since. “I’m here because of the drug developed by funding from Komen called Herceptin—I’m really confident that this drug was the key to my survival.” Her advice? “Stay positive. Do whatever is impactful for you to change your life and live it to the fullest. Don’t wait to be diagnosed with cancer before you make decisions to make yourself happy.”

Dr. April Speed A breast surgeon, Dr. Speed shares a compelling observation: “Breast cancer is unique from any other type of cancer. It’s so visual and outward that it’s almost like a scarlet letter,” she says. “I spend a lot of time convincing women that this isn’t your grandmother’s breast disease—we’ve come a long way. You’re beautiful and not vain if you want reconstruction.” Dr. Speed refers to the breast cancer journey as one that gives a better appreciation for life. For many women, this is the first time they’ve put themselves first because they’re forced to do so. They realize their mortality. “You only get one you—and, right now, it’s about self-preservation,” she notes. Her journey with her patients has taught her to enjoy the gift of the present. “My patients challenge me to not just look, but see. Not just hear, but listen. People want to be validated—they want you to see them. That’s the thing that binds us all.”

Lila Hertz Hertz, the driving force behind Jeffrey Fashion Cares and longtime leader of Komen Atlanta, is a 15-year survivor. “When I was diagnosed, I was training for my first marathon. I just wanted to know how soon I would be able to resume my normal activities,” she recalls. “I told the surgeon about the marathon, and he said as soon as I feel like running, run! And that became my mantra. From that day, I have connected health and fitness together. As I moved forward, it became my passion to make a mark for women with breast cancer.” That passion resulted in spearheading Komen’s mission in Atlanta as board chair. For those recently diagnosed, Hertz advises that you take a deep breath, and let everything sink in. “Look to your support systems to help you sift through the decisions you have to make. Your support system is incredibly important!”

Hair-Raising Tips Steve Hightower, the hair stylist on this shoot, is an expert when it comes to working with fine and thinning hair after chemotherapy. His salon is the only one in the city that carries FDA-certified Mediceuticals products, which slow down hair loss, if not stop it altogether. Local oncologists noticed the difference in their patients and now several doctors at Northside and Emory Hospitals send their clients to him regularly. He advises clients who have lost a lot of hair that most wigs are too thick and should be thinned out. “I’ve seen horrible wigs and no one helps cut, style or fit them,” he laments. He also recommends synthetic over human hair wigs. “Synthetics have come miles and you can use curling irons and straighteners on them now,” he notes. “They also have memory caps that help a style go right back to its shape and an open cap that keeps your head from getting hot and sweaty.”

Styling by Sara Mixon for Tootsies
Hair by Steve Hightower
Makeup by Nyssa Green
Shot at Mandarin Oriental, Atlanta