Cancer was always at the back of Melissa Berry’s mind. Berry—a then-married mother and fashion and beauty publicist based in New Jersey—grew up with a prevalence of breast cancer in her family. But it wasn’t until she was 32 years old that she decided to undergo genetic testing.
“I always promised myself that if I was going to get tested for the [BRCA] gene, and I did test positive, number one, I wouldn’t look at it as a cancer diagnosis. Number two, I wouldn’t look at it as a death sentence. And number three, I would use it as my GPS to my health, my roadmap,” Berry says. “It’s not an easy thing to do—to get tested for something and then learn you have a good chance of getting a disease. At the same time, it’s empowering.”
Berry tested positive for the BRCA gene mutation, and she spent the next few years undergoing preventative care every six months, including receiving clinical breast exams, mammograms, and breast MRIs. “I’m being watched so closely. I’m doing yoga. I’m eating kale. I am not getting breast cancer,” Berry says.
It’s not an easy thing to do—to get tested for something and then learn you have a good chance of getting a disease. At the same time, it’s empowering.
But six years ago, during a routine breast health checkup, Berry’s world changed in a matter of moments. A clinical breast exam revealed a lump on her left breast. She then received an ultrasound, and although a nurse just believed the lump was a cyst, the head of the department requested a needle biopsy. “They actually, believe it or not, didn’t really see anything major, but thank god for this pathologist,” Berry says. “He said, and these are the words that literally made every hair on my neck stand up, ‘I see a shadow.’ I didn’t like the sound of that.” A deeper needle biopsy showed the lump was cancerous.
“When he said those words, your brain, you don’t even know how to absorb that information,” reveals Berry. “I remember thinking to myself, it must not be the real cancer. It must be some other weirder thing.” Still, Berry marched on and received chemotherapy and underwent a bilateral mastectomy. “I’m all about crystals and medicine and eating kale,” Berry jokes, “But personally, when it comes to medicine and science, I had to follow the guise of my doctor and that’s what I was advised to do. I was comfortable with that.”
Although a cancer diagnosis and treatment can be extremely physically debilitating, it can also have deleterious effects on one’s mental health. Berry couldn’t believe she was facing cancer at such an early age. “You’re talking about life expectancies, [and] it makes you angry. Like what the hell is happening?” says Berry. “I have two children. I have a life and friends. I’m not ready to leave yet.”
She was also frightened by the optics of being a cancer patient while working in the fashion and beauty world. “I was like, oh my god. Of all professions, I’m not just sitting in front of a desk.” Berry’s work in P.R. meant meetings with beauty editors and attendance at the top fashion shows. “I didn’t want to look like a cancer patient,” Berry says.
Determined to confront these fears, she began searching for “the vogue of cancer patients.” What kind of resource could provide insight on the coolest post-mastectomy bras, or how to apply false lashes when you don’t have any, or what to do when you lose your eyebrows? Berry was unable to find any singular source, so she began to gather this information on her own and created a comprehensive list. “The cool girl’s breast cancer project,” says Berry.
Later, Berry’s friend Tina suggested she turn her information (which by then became a resource for many friends and friends of friends in her social circle) into a blog. “I’m like, ‘Tina, I can’t even make dinner right now. How am I gonna start a blog?’ But that’s exactly what I did.” Enter Cancer Fashionista, a fashion, beauty, and lifestyle site for “the cancer fashionista in you or someone you love.”
Despite recently being declared cancer-free after years in remission, Berry still maintains and updates her website for the cancer community. “I [had] a nasty disease that other women die from, and the way that I feel like I can give back is to help my little sisters,” Berry begins. “Women that are going through breast cancer, I think of them as my little sisters. I never had a big sister, and I feel like a big sister will tell you how to kiss, what to wear on your first date. She might even tell you what to wear when you go on your first job interview.” Berry didn’t have that, so she wants to provide that to her community. “It really is a form of healing for me.”
The Cancer Fashionista community has grown to more than 16,000 followers on Instagram and counting. It’s there—along with her website and other social media platforms—that Berry can most directly communicate with a community of women, much like her, who yearn for the best resources available, but can’t find them. It’s work that Berry is proud to create every single day. “I like to be the goalie for these women. If they’re not strong enough to say it, I’m here to say, ‘Breast cancer, back the F up! You cannot take this girl’s spirit. You can’t break her.’”