Thirty-one survivors-turned-models experienced an “instant sisterhood” – in the words of Melanie Randall of Mount Vernon – at the first New England Breast Cancer Alliance Runway for Hope on April 29 at the Elks Lodge on Congress Street in Portland.

“I have found so much strength in my warrior sisters,” Randall said.

Marisa Dolan Paraschak of Naples founded the New England Breast Cancer Alliance in 2019.

“I am here because of the research that came before me, that led to the chemotherapy that worked for me,” she said. “But there are still many people for whom current treatments don’t work. We need research for them, and for everyone else who will be in those shoes in the future. The other part of our mission is to put on events to support and connect local survivors.”

To those ends, the show raised $25,000. The 300-person event sold out six weeks in advance (and was streamed on Instagram Live for people on the waiting list).

“There’s a huge community here of people affected by breast cancer,” said Jennifer Libby, a survivor and board member from Windham. “Parents, spouses, children, coworkers, neighbors, friends.”

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Dozens of volunteers included costume designers, seamstresses and a “glam squad” of hair and makeup artists. The fashion show was split into two themes – “fantasy” and “fierce” – with gowns inspired by everything from Barbie, mermaids and fairies to medieval warriors, Greek goddesses and Transformers.

Alicia Wilson of Standish wore a gown made of a Maine “Dirigio” flag trimmed in lobster rope and embroidered with the initials of breast cancer survivors who helped her through chemotherapy. Julie Marchese wore a gown with details inspired by Tri for a Cure, which she co-founded in 2008 as a fundraiser for breast cancer research. And Erin Hatch of Saco dressed like a unicorn, to the delight of her 4-year-old daughter Cecilia.

Board member Ryann Chamberlain made an entrance with a “boob umbrella” as a prop in a cheeky Broadway-style performance to “One” from “A Chorus Line.” She said that the “singular sensation” lyric was a subtle reference to having “one real, one fake,” and her Halloween-inspired costume was a nod to being diagnosed after a mammogram that happened on Oct. 31.

“For a lot of women who have had chemo and lost their hair or eyelashes, or lost breasts, it changes the way you feel about yourself,” Paraschak said. “This show is an opportunity to reclaim themselves, their new bodies, and have some fun after a few years of that heaviness.”

A survivor with a double mastectomy removed her robe on the runway, twirling topless. Another model took off her wig and danced bald.

Erinn Needham of Kennebunk modeled a silver mesh embroidered gown designed by River Nation. “He made it see-through on top so I can showcase my flat enclosure,” Needham said. “And it’s silver because I was trying to find all the silver linings in this situation.”

Christina Clements of Sandwich, Massachusetts, strutted out to “Fight Song” in a peacock-inspired gown representing strength, confidence and power. She said, “This is a great night for us to celebrate and show we’re not just patients, we’re people, too.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at amyparadysz@gmail.com.


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