At age 98, Angie MacLean doesn’t look like the typical lingerie model. Yet Sunday afternoon found the nonagenarian barmaid prowling the runway, showing off a pink bra festooned with wine corks.
MacLean (pictured), introduced as Connecticut’s oldest living breast cancer survivor, was one of several survivors-turned-runway models at ArtBra New Haven, an auction of decorative bras held at the Omni Hotel. The proceeds of the auction, which drew more than 100 people, will go to uninsured and under-insured breast cancer patients at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale-New Haven. Organizers hoped to top last year’s $11,000 haul.
The promotional materials for the event mentioned “English-style afternoon tea,” but while tea and cookies were served, the atmosphere was far from Victorian. Before the live auction began, the guests mingled with the models, a mix of survivors, supporters, daughters and friends in various states of immodesty.
The bras meant different things to different people. (Click here for a list of the bras and their creators.)
“It’s a symbol of what you’re losing,” said Shaina Hotchkiss (pictured).
Kristine Lamb (pictured) agreed. A breast cancer survivor who works at Smilow, she modeled a bra called “Despicable BRCA 2.” (BRCA refers to a pair of genes that can carry cancer-causing mutations.)
“When you lose your breasts, you lose the need for a bra,” she said.
Decorating and wearing the bras were also an act of defiance. Susie Freyeisen (pictured), who like Lamb is both a survivor and a Smilow employee, modeled “Flaunt It!” She explained the ethos of her bra: “If you got it, flaunt it. But if you don’t got it, flaunt it anyway.”
Some of the bras had more specific messages. Therese McNally (pictured), an ovarian cancer survivor whose “Thor”-themed bra, complete with helmet and hammer, could double as a risqué Halloween costume, said the getup was “about being our own hero through your treatment.”
Gaye Hyre (pictured at top with MacLean), the executive director of ArtBra New Haven, described the event as a chance for survivors to enjoy themselves and relieve some of the tension of illness and treatment.
“These are women who have been through the worst year of their lives,” she said, “and fun is a top priority.”
Eileen Kaplan (pictured) echoed the need for humor. The author of “Laughter Is The Breast Medicine,” Kaplan was quick to poke fun at what she called “the absurdities of breast cancer treatment.”
“I left my breasts in Boston,” she joked, referring to her double mastectomy. “Which was a pretty good place to leave them.”
Though the mood was festive, everyone was all too aware that the cause was not to be taken lightly. Asked about the significance of the event, Hyre mentioned the plight of women who can’t afford treatment. The day before her own chemotherapy began, she said, her health insurance provider canceled her coverage, deeming her cancer a preexisting condition. (Read more about that here.) Although she was eventually able to regain coverage, she said the experience gave her a small taste of what it’s like to face breast cancer without the means to pay for care. “I don’t want anyone to feel that kind of terror,” she said. “You might be looking at a quarter of a million dollars” in out-of-pocket treatment expenses.
Both the levity and the gravity of the event were apparent when the organizers honored Ellen Matloff, director of the Yale Cancer Genetics Counseling Center and a lead plaintiff in a recent lawsuit challenging patents on the genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. In June, the Supreme Court unanimously invalidated the patents.
Matloff (pictured at left), along with much of the audience, choked up as she described the challenges she had faced in her fight against gene patenting, which until her court victory had driven up the costs of genetic screenings for breast cancer risk. But the room erupted in laughter when Hyre presented the geneticist with a bra made from the back pockets of a pair of blue jeans—that is, a “jean bra.” (Get it?)
As tears of joy, sadness and relief mixed together, it was clear that the women of ArtBra New Haven had a lot to get off their chests.