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Where All Eyes Were on Breast Cancer Survivors

We often see cancer as a tragic story, particularly when we reflect on those we have lost. It seems everyone knows someone who has succumbed to this dreaded disease. Breast cancer is one of the most prevalent varieties. In the U.S., one woman is diagnosed with the disease every two minutes, according to the American Cancer Society. Few families are left unscathed. Yet, instead of focusing on the tragedy in all of this, photographer Reggy Stainfil decided to tell another side of the story, one of hope, resilience, perseverance, and strength. He did so when he put together an inspirational calendar with 13 breast cancer survivors. Here, women from diverse backgrounds and diagnosed at all different ages and stages share their stories, offering advice and inspiration. Around 150 guests gathered on a cold January 6th evening for the “Pink Carpet Release Party” at The Waterfront—an ultramodern sports, arts, and entertainment complex located in Newark, New Jersey. The community center for those in the know is Brick City’s “best kept secret.” This was the launch party for the “Eye of the Survivor” calendar. Some came to share their stories, others to be moved by them.

Photo by Kenneth Petiote

Photography by Kenneth Petiote

Photo by Kenneth Petiote

Photography by Kenneth Petiote

For more photos click here

The release party was held in a two story, rectangular room. At one end hung a beautiful mosaic and at the other, wall to ceiling windows offering city views, with a rock climbing wall looming overhead, adding atmosphere, and perhaps symbolizing the monolith these women had overcome. This event was a labor of love both for Reggy and his tribe. Friends and family were recruited to volunteer through word of mouth, donating their efforts. Businesses in the community contributed event space, lighting, photography & videography, food and more. Pink lights lined the floor. A backdrop and pink carpet lay front and center. In the rear a buffet serving light fare including spinach artichoke dip, delectable orange chicken, fried rice and spring rolls, served up by Sita Caters and her friendly staff. Guests mingled, ate and chatted in the sitting area, or grooved to the smooth R&B music provided by DJ CaliCal. Anyone with a heart in their chest could feel the love in the atmosphere, the food, and in interactions with staff.

Reggy, shaven headed with a close cropped beard, seemed to be everywhere at once. Wearing a pink bow tie and suspenders, the soft spoken photographer mingled, chatted with guests, and flashed and easy smile as he took photos of and with survivors and family members, and made sure everything ran smoothly. Matt Ravo hosted this event. Donning smart Buddy Holly glasses, a sharp gray suit and a pink button down, he kept the event upbeat and moving. About 150 people showed all told, both survivors and guests. The first two hours were for mingling, eating, and taking photos. Each survivor was given a pink Miss America style sash with her month in the calendar printed on it. Jennifer Ewens of Newark was so moved, she put together gift baskets for all her “survivor sisters.” She was Miss February, along with her mother Migdalia Ewens--a 12 year cancer survivor, who wanted women diagnosed to “be strong” and to know that “life continues.” Jennifer added, “Be a fighter. Never give up.”

Sweet and soft spoken Betty Jean of Maplewood was very proud to be a part of the calendar. “If I can help someone, I have not lived in vein,” she said. She also urged those diagnosed to, “Get as many opinions as possible.” One doctor told her, her cancer was at stage one, another stage three. She advised women who had been diagnosed to keep seeing different doctors until they find one they have a rapport with. Brenda Dukes had a similar story. Her advice, “Be familiar with your body. The doctors kept telling me everything was fine. I found the cancer and kept telling them, ‘something’s not right.’”

Geeta Mitchell was hesitant about being in the calendar at first. “I don’t like going public with anything,” she said. A slight woman with short hair and a calm demeanor, she told others in the same shoes, “Don’t let the disease control you.” It is easy to fall into despair. But Mitchell reminded us that we are all going to die someday, so it is best to “Live one day at a time and enjoy it.” Ms. Mitchell was diagnosed one week before Christmas. She said at the time she heard the news, she cried. Then she threw a big party on Christmas Eve and had a good time, and kept that positive attitude right through the entire process.

Though for most a diagnosis for breast cancer is a horrific ordeal, for Sandra Charlap of Maplewood it was a blessing in disguise. Amazing people from her neighborhood and all around came out to support her. It also strengthened her friendships, and made her closer to her family, especially her daughter. “You are faced with something so daunting, it can feel overwhelming. But in reality, it isn’t.” Debbie Stith was a survivor. But she saw a reemergence of her disease and is currently undergoing chemo once again. Even so, she was determined to make her face seen. Flanked by loved ones helping her to the

pink carpet, she told her fellow sisters she was “determined to win.”

In the last hour Angelina Killane-Sims chair of AanglesNJ made a speech. This is a nonprofit dedicated to providing education, resources, and awareness about breast cancer, with particular attention to the underserved and the uninsured. Killane-Sims is a seven year survivor herself. She praised Reggy and the calendar launch, saying that her and these “13 strong sisters now have a bond, are in a sorority you don’t choose but that chooses you.” The end of the event saw lots of mingling, with guests hanging on savoring the love, dedication, and support from all around them. The bravery of these women and their stories moved every heart. Certainly anyone who has had or has been touched by breast cancer should consider attending this fun and moving event next year.

One of the most noteworthy survivors was Edwinta Rhue. She was also perhaps the hardest to miss. This strikingly tall, vivacious woman showed up in her wedding gown dyed pink for the occasion. A humorous interaction between her and Reggy transpired. When they were about to take a photo together, he grabbed a chair and stood on it, so he could be taller, eliciting laughs from all across the room. Edwinta laughed too, a bit shocked. But her words echoed in the minds of survivors and others. She reminded all of us to, “Celebrate life because you never know what’s next.”

Philip Perry is a freelance writer and blogger. His work has appeared on Your Tango,, STEMJobs, Hack Writers, The Guardian Liberty Voice, Quarterly Access, and more. You can find his writer’s website here:

Watch this 2:45 video by Izz Video Production

View the photo gallery here

Hear their personal survival stories. Stories of courage and love as they inspire other survivors and supporters around the world. Click Here

Thank you to our sponsors:

4evergrafix for all the graphic designs

The Waterfront for providing the space

Kenneth Petiote Photography for the photos

Izz Video Production for the video

SW Event Group for the pink lighting

DJ CaliCali for providing music

MP Affairs for consultation and event planning

Sita Caters for providing the food

Matthew Ravo for hosting

AangelsNJ for providing guest speaker Angelina Killane-Sims

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