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Couture Cancer
the blonde cherie
While Stacie Fleming was living out her fashion-fueled dreams in Paris, France, strange symptoms called her back to the U.S. The diagnosis? Late-stage ovarian cancer. But Stacie refused to allow cancer to consume her identity, and she used treatment sessions as an opportunity to don a show-stopping outfit and strut her stuff on the “chemo catwalk.” The results? Nurturing her creative spirit allowed her to ultimately find healing.

I was living my dream life in Paris, successfully navigating the cobblestone streets in high heels, blissfully unaware of the clandestine cancer brewing inside me. As a fashion blogger and journalist, I attended runway shows from Paris to Milan, writing rave reviews, getting up close and personal backstage with designers and enjoying champagne-soaked soirées. I often had to pinch myself as I walked around the fashion capital of the world, enthralled by its beauty, charm and sophistication. Little ole me, The Blonde Cherie (the name I had given my brand, fashion blog and Instagram), a California girl living her best life abroad in the City of Light. Enchanted by the concept of la parisienne, I hoped to embody the attitude, spirit and style of this ultra-feminine, chic woman — think Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. Joie de vivre filled my heart each day as I lived out my fashion dreams, oblivious to the foreboding future that lay ahead.

My beautiful Parisian life came to an abrupt halt when strange pains in my lower abdomen brought me back to the States. I had been diagnosed with fibroids while living in Paris — even rushed to the hospital a few times for abdominal pain — but I always brushed it off as nothing. Having lived abroad for almost a decade, culture shock was omnipresent when I first returned to Southern California. I fell into what I call a “suburban slump.” I gained weight; my stomach was bloated and distended. I figured it was the culmination of food changes, lifestyle differences and feeling down in the dumps. Again, I brushed it off as nothing, like my doctors had done. At this point, my lower abdominal pain was worsening, and I had a new strange pain in my left femur. 

At the height of my suburban slump came the onset of the global pandemic. Why not add a little more drama to the mix? By the time COVID-19 entered the scene, I had already seen a gastroenterologist, gynecologist, orthopedist and been to the emergency room to no avail. My gynecologist at that time enlightened me that I had fibroids and ovarian cysts, but had a rather laissez-faire attitude about removing them. Not once did she suggest that I might have cancer. To make matters worse, elective surgeries were put on hold indefinitely due to the pandemic. 

In May 2020, my lower abdominal pain had reached a level 10. Thankfully, I was finally able to get in for a laparoscopic myomectomy to remove what the doctor thought was an ovarian cyst. I woke up happily sedated, only to have my high abruptly interrupted with three ghastly words: You have cancer. I was thinking to myself, Excusez-moi? I think you have the wrong girl. Can I please get another sedative, and hop on a plane back to Paris? Joking aside, my life turned upside down in the blink of an eye when I was diagnosed with a rare form of ovarian cancer, called clear cell carcinoma. The chaos that ensued in my head the next several months was nothing short of pandemonium. An amalgamation of anxiety, denial, fear and sadness permeated every thought. I went so far as to research an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland. I was highly staged, so I thought I was a goner for sure. I felt out of control, overwhelmed and ugly. My second surgery left me with a 10-inch scar on my stomach, and with surgical hernias. Yikes! I needed to get a grip if I was going to beat this disease!

After a cacophony of protest, and some deep reflection, I had a little tête à tête with myself to get my head in the game. My type-A personality kicked in, I put on my investigative journalism hat and I armed myself with knowledge. I felt compelled to get creative in my approach to fighting and beating cancer. I coined the term “couture cancer,” and “chemo catwalk,” vowing to fashionably beat my cancer with style, grace and panache. Fashion immediately became a driving force in my cancer journey, providing me with renewed hope. Karl Lagerfeld, the iconic designer who helmed Chanel for more than 30 years, once said, “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life, so you bought some sweatpants.” I was determined to not turn into that person. I would fight an un-chic disease with style. I would turn this negative into a positive. I would radiate light! Straight off the Paris runways, I would strut my stuff on the “chemo catwalk.”

Dressing up for chemotherapy, 32 immunotherapy sessions and oncology appointments made me feel confident, empowered and fierce. I felt like I could take on the world. My ensembles were my armor, shielding me from the negativity of my treatments. I harnessed the hidden power that lies in what we wear. I learned a lesson a long time ago: Wearing something that made me feel good positively impacted my mindset, wellbeing and mental health. If I looked good, I felt good. I chose colors that sparked feelings of joy and happiness, making my treatments more manageable. I expressed my unique style from head to toe, flaunting either my bald head or capricious curls, wigs and other sassy looks. I even boldly rocked my birthday suit for an Instagram post, wearing my scars as a badge of honor. Before each treatment, I would stop somewhere that made me happy. Whether the beach, a coffee shop or a beautiful view, I would take a few meditative moments to get mentally prepared, and take a photo of my OOTD (internet speak meaning “outfit of the day”). By dressing up, the fashionista in me was still alive, honoring an important part of the old me.

Fashion immediately became a driving force in my cancer journey, providing me with renewed hope.

As fate would have it, my oncologist was a bit of a style icon himself. Divine intervention definitely brought us together. He expressed himself through his stylish socks. My tri-weekly checkups became our own exclusive fashion show. He would demonstrate his flair for fashion through his dapper dress socks, and I would rock my cancer-chic, warrior wardrobe. I began adding to his sock collection. The first pair I bought him was a set of whimsical teal butterflies to symbolize hope. It brought me immense comfort to see him wearing those socks. To my delight, my fashion choices also brought joy to the infusion center team of doctors and nurses. They couldn’t wait to see what I would wear next. Serving up a side of sass at each infusion allowed me to flex my creative muscle and bring joy to an otherwise depressing situation. 

Fashion became my creative outlet during the “two Cs” (COVID-19 and cancer). Similar to drawing and painting, it became a way to express myself artistically. It got my creative juices flowing again and opened my heart, allowing me to honor and recognize my new identity. I used fashion as a form of self-expression at a time when I felt nothing like myself. When my life became consumed by doctor’s visits, dressing up allowed me to still live creatively. Honing in on my personal style during my cancer journey was a powerful tool to reinvent myself and reinforce my self-image. I learned a powerful lesson during this transformative journey: Fashion is a creative outlet that allowed me to express and recognize my unique identity. I am grateful for fashion’s healing effects, and the joy it brought me during such a trying time.

I may no longer live in Paris, but I will forever radiate Parisian-chic wherever I go. My suburban slump has subsided, having triumphed over my “couture cancer” while looking très chic. I shed my sickness and reclaimed my femininity through style and grace. I encourage everyone on this life-changing journey to cultivate creativity. Fashion provided me with an outlet to fiercely fight this disease. Find your outlet — let creativity be your guiding light and use its forces to heal you. Be bold! Be courageous! Through embodying the spirit of la parisienne and kindling feelings of joie de vivre, I fashionably beat my cancer, and I hope sharing my story inspires warriors everywhere.

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