Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Blustery Day

[this article is cross-posted at thescarprojectcincy blog.]

When Cincinnati SCAR Project subject Vanessa Tiemeier was talking about her Blustery Day Design business on Fox 19's June "Think Pink"segment, you might have found yourself channeling a little Winnie the Pooh and humming along with this classic.

But then again maybe that's just me. Anyway. I don't know if Vanessa and her sisters, Jessica and Christina, were channeling Winnie the Pooh when they began their Blustery Day Design business, after Vanessa was diagnosed with breast cancer, but they definitely weren't channeling Eeyore.

Vanessa did not sitting around sulking, like Eeyore always did whenever Christopher Robin would put his tail back on, saying "No matter. Most likely lose it again anyway."

Like she told Fox 19's Katie Morgan, "I know for a lot of people, their world just empties out. But for me, I was always: Well, what can I do about it?"

Vanessa credits her positive outlook and upbeat perspective to the incredible support she receives from her family.

Not many lifetime marriages are tested on the "in sickness" vows like Billy and Vanessa have been ever since Vanessa was diagnosed with breast cancer nine months after they said "I do." (Happy anniversary to Billy and Vanessa, btw, who celebrated their 5th anniversary last week! Cheers to you both, and to both of your health, and here's to MANY more anniversaries!)

And then there are Vanessa's sisters, Jessica Yeager and Christina Blust.

"My sisters mean the world to me. They are my best friends," says Vanessa, the sister in the middle.

Like bookends, Vanessa's sisters were by her side, supporting her.

"Besides the obvious actions that were now immediately needed, to learn about her cancer and treatment plan and how we could best support Vanessa in this new, crappy situation..." Jessica explained in a recent interview. "...we also found we all felt like we needed to act, immediately, in another way, too, to make our dream to start a future business together 'real'.

"I think we were destined to have a business together. Our different strengths and preferences complement each other, and we are best friends who truly love working together. Despite the obvious desire we had to do this, we felt no rush towards action on it, since we were each still finishing our degrees, getting married, buying houses, and enjoying young adulthood. Our business plans seemed like something we’d do 'once we grew up' still, and we meanwhile relished our casual chats as young twenty-somethings talking about this sister business we’d certainly have, one day, and just how great it will be.

"Until Vanessa was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at age 25. That just made us rethink our whole timeline.

"Finding out about her cancer was a major wake up call. We realized that waiting for the 'perfect' time to start just resulted in lots of waiting… and we no longer had the luxury of time in which to wait. The time, perfect or not, was now.

"While Vanessa had her first chemo treatments, we sat next to her in the visitor chairs and talked through our business plan. We took trips to try on wigs together and then followed that up with visits to paper shops. We’d google 'Adriamycin side effects' and then google 'small business web hosting'. It became a joint project, this cancer and this business. Together they formed a strange partnership of slowing things down and speeding things up, all at once.

"The company name that we settled on for our business was Blustery Day Design. This is something of a play on our maiden names of 'Blust', but we also saw including a 'blustery day' in our name as a fitting testimony to both the good and the bad parts of life, the ups and the downs, the happy and the sad. We believe all parts, all days, and all moments, are worth celebrating, acknowledging and supporting. Our business is founded in part on a desire to assist people in really being there for each other, in small but meaningful ways, through everything life contains.

"Once we got 'real', our cancer greeting cards were an obvious first product line for Blustery Day Design to develop. Who better than Vanessa, with her insider perspective, to create authentic and heartfelt cards that said exactly what she wanted to have said to her, exactly what she knew would cheer up someone else who was in just her shoes.

"When she got overloaded by the many very supportive but very pink cards and gifts, Vanessa came up with the 'no pink' card. When she felt her most low from treatments and surgeries that left her bald, boobless, and puffy, she created the 'still beautiful' card. As she weathered the storm that is chemo and all its side effects, Vanessa made the 'chemo brain' card. When we all joked about how many times we just wished there was an actual 'cancer card' you could pull out of your wallet to get special treatment at needed times, our wallet-sized 'cancer card' was born.

"The creation of the different cancer cards is therapeutic for us, but the feedback we hear back from customers who have sent on our cards is truly the most rewarding part. To hear how Vanessa’s insight and experiences have brightened the day of someone else dealing with cancer, or to know our simple and small card let someone know they were loved and supported, gives us such a sense of making a difference in the lives of others in the world wide community – and this is a key part of what our goals are for our business.

"Currently, when I think of my sisters and our business, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude and hope. Seems rather odd to feel or say, seeing as Vanessa is now more recently diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, which means her cancer has spread throughout her body, will never be gone, and she will never be 'cured'. She has cancer as a terminal disease now, and the stats that go along with it are both sobering and horrible. We have sister cry sessions over the fact that cancer has taken from us what we each imagined our futures containing – different paths that still end with the three of us, with our own families, old and wrinkly and getting together for ice cream and marathon gab sessions at the ripe age of 96. Life, it’s clear, is not fair, and the privilege of a limitless future is too often taken for granted.

"I’d rather go back to the boring, normal life where our business dreams were slow moving and Vanessa didn’t have cancer, any day. But she has cancer, and we had the business in us all along, and now we’re running with them both – and we have resolved to use the business to defy the cancer.

"We have already made a difference in the lives of people around the world, and have so many ideas to do even more. We are able to make a real contribution towards stopping this awful thing that is cancer, by choosing a promising local cancer research foundation to donate a portion of our cancer cards’ proceeds to.

"We have taken something ugly, and found the beauty there still. We love, and live, sincerely. Life is good."

Not too shabby a mantra.

Vanessa's younger sister, Christina adds, "I am so grateful, every day, that I get to be part of this with two of my favorite people in the world. Stationery makes sense for us — it's all about reaching out in a meaningful way to the people in each of our lives, creating true communication and strengthening relationships no matter if the circumstance is a joyous event or a tough bit of news."

"Being able to reach people with our cards has been amazing," Vanessa sums up, harmonizing with the gratitude her sisters have so eloquently articulated. "I am grateful to be able to share my talent in a positive way and spread peace. Receiving feedback from our customers who give our cards to a friend is the best part. It reaffirms that what we are doing is really touching others. And isn't that what our purpose in life is? -- To spread hope?

"Although I wasn't aware of it at the time, I have come to realize that me creating cancer cards for others to share has been my way of dealing with and expressing myself after my diagnosis. Some people write in a journal, or paint a picture, but for me, it was to use my graphic design talent to outwardly express my thoughts and emotions. And for Christina, it was through her music. She coped by writing songs. She is so gifted with words and melodies, and in way, paints pictures with her songs. I'll never forget the first time I heard 'Tumor' which she wrote after finding out that our Mom had a brain tumor and I had breast cancer all in the same week. She writes eloquently, 'Tumor, you are mistaken: you are actually a small, frenzied moth. I will watch you from the front door. You will kiss the light on my porch, find in its brilliance fatal joy — you will not spread. You will die for love instead.'

"And in the song 'Sudden Amaryllis' she writes 'Sudden amaryllis! In dead fields reach lilies to the sky, to the sky. Hope is dancing in the sky. (Hope is staring right at you.)'. Christina was stricken with the fact that these flowers survive and thrive in the most barren a gravel lot with otherwise no signs of life, these amaryllis flowers stand tall. I think this is a great analogy to my life now," explains Vanessa. "Although there is all this ugliness an misfortune around me, I keep my head up and live sincerely."

Live Sincerely. Now those are two words that'll turn "The End" upside down. It's never too early to start.

Local SCAR Project Subject “Thinking Pink” with Fox 19, and on the Style Network “Baring It All”

[this article is cross-posted at thescarprojectcincy blog.]

Young Cincinnati breast cancer survivor and SCAR Project subject Vanessa Tiemeier was featured on the Fox 19 News “Think Pink” segment for June. (Click HERE to view.) On July 9th, Vanessa will be one of four young women to be featured in the Style Network’s premiere of Patricia Zagarella’s SCAR Project documentary: “Baring It All.” (Click HERE to stay tuned for more info and the trailer, and of course, please LIKE the Facebook page:) This September 29 – October 2, Vanessa’s portrait in which she bared her breast cancer scars, will be one of 30 featured in the Cincinnati premiere of the Pulitzer nominated SCAR Project.

When I met Vanessa, she was standing beside her portrait at the New York City debut of The SCAR Project last October.

She was talking about her experience being photographed for The SCAR Project. I was struck by a number of things about Vanessa. Besides the fact that she was also a breast cancer survivor from Cincinnati who I happened to meet at an art gallery in the Big Apple when I drove there with my chemo sister Shelly to see the opening of an photographic exhibit Vanessa’s portrait was featured in…she was ONLY 29 and her hair was so long. This was probably only significant to me, because even now I still don’t feel that 45 classifies me as an old breast cancer survivor. (Though technically, I suppose it’s true that I am technically old enough to be her Mum. Hmph.) Anyway, the thing about breast cancer is that it doesn’t have no R-E-S-P-E-C-T. That’s pretty much the message of The SCAR Project, and what Vanessa (my senior in fighting breast cancer) was basically saying: Breast Cancer does not play by the rules. If you thought only old women like me get breast cancer, think again. Young women get it too.

This. Is. Wrong.

Which is why a shy girl like Vanessa would be willing to bare it all, her breast cancer SCARs, exposing them for what they really are: (Surviving Cancer. Absolute Reality.)

I could tell how shy she was the way she kept attempting to defer to her portrait, pointing our eyes onto it, when we were looking at her. She had something to say about her absolute reality of surviving breast cancer, but she wanted her portrait to speak. “That’s why I decided to do be photographed for The SCAR Project,” she told me. “I don’t communicate verbally as much as I do visually. It was a way to talk about it without talking about it. I know it’s cliche about a picture being worth 1000 words, but that was my idea behind it.” I could tell how proud she was of her portrait, and to be part of The SCAR Project, because it was bigger than herself with its message of breast cancer awareness for young women, like herself. I noticed this in all the young breast cancer survivor SCAR Project “models” I met that night. Each of them had bared it all, exposing beauty in spite of SCARs, and courage in the face of breast cancer, not to mention, a society where some women are sick of pink and every man’s a breast man.

This humility was probably one of the things that struck me most about Vanessa. It was not in her plans to become a face for young women with breast cancer. Her plans were simply to get married and have a big family. She fell in love and got married at 24. Nine months later…instead of the baby carriage part that was supposed to come next…she had the cancer part to deal with. Then when she was re-diagnosed three years later, before she was finished with treatment and given the go ahead to try and try to fill that baby carriage, she was faced with the absolute reality of a hysterectomy and not having children. “That was the most difficult part to swallow,” said Vanessa.

“I don’t really make plans anymore,” she continued, when I asked her what her plans were now. “I’ve learned plans are crap and to cherish the moment. This moment. I try do this day by day and spend time with the people that mean the most. Try to be the best aunt, wife, sister, daughter I can be. Yeah,” she finishes up with a happy sigh, obviously savoring the moment of thinking about each of those roles and the ones she loves.

This again strikes me. Note she didn’t say anything about her unassuming role in being one of the faces of young women facing breast cancer. Obviously, that wasn’t in her plans. But there she is, beautifully embodying it, embracing each moment.

It’s like blooming.

It’s like turning the tables on cancer. Which reminds me of this song, by Vanessa’s sister Christina Blust. Tumor you are so freaking mistaken.