Pink Ladies: Two Cancer Survivors Find the Breast Friendship
Mary Beth Gibson was undergoing treatment for breast cancer when she attended a retreat for survivors in Williamsburg in the fall of 2006. She went out to her car to retrieve her yoga mat and returned to find a woman standing in the doorway, decked out in a pink feather boa and a sparkly tiara with a pair of colorful wings on her back. This woman is René Bowditch, dressed as her alter ego, the Good Health Fairy. Bowditch greeted the Gibson with the two words that would set the tone for their lasting friendship: “Hello, beautiful.”
With a baseball cap covering her bald head and only one stubborn eyelash still holding on for dear life, Gibson didn’t feel beautiful. Diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 40s, she felt out of place at support groups, where the other women were often almost twice her age. She opened up to Bowditch, also a survivor, about the unique challenges she faced as a young woman with breast cancer. The two decided to start their own support group, called Tea and Talk. From those informal sessions at Bowditch’s home sprang Beyond Boobs!, a non-profit dedicated to young survivors that is headquartered in Williamsburg and includes 13 support groups spanning four states.
With a one-of-a-kind quirky style, an attitude of gratitude and a whole lot of love, Beyond Boobs! supports and empowers young women diagnosed with breast cancer, encouraging them to live life with an exclamation point, rather than a period. They also provide breast health education for all women.
“There are so many myths out there about young women and breast cancer,” Gibson says. “Doctors may say that a woman is too young to develop the disease or that breast cancer doesn’t cause pain. We kept hearing those myths, and they made us mad, so we decided to do something about it.”
In 2007 Beyond Boobs! launched its first breast health guide, cleverly disguised as a calendar. A Calendar to Live By, now in its 10th year, provides hope and inspiration for women facing a cancer diagnosis, as well as life-saving tips for early detection. The calendar features the women of Beyond Boobs!, affectionately known as “Boobers!,” as monthly calendar models.
Each year’s calendar is unveiled amid much fanfare at the Pink Carpet Gala, a Beyond Boobs! signature event. The group hosts several other events throughout the year, including the “Breast” Ball Golf Tournament; Run for the Hills 5K/10K; Mr. Breast Fest, where men dressed in decorated bras compete for the title; the Old Dudes Poker Run, sponsored by a motorcycle club; and Starlets of Dance, an exhibition where survivors, paired with professional dancers, take the stage to strut their stuff before an audience. The group also holds a seaside survivors retreat every summer in Sandbridge in Virginia Beach.
Gibson, a College of William & Mary graduate, worked for many years in human resources before assuming the position of executive director at Beyond Boobs!. She and her husband, Bo, are the parents of three boys: Cole, Clay and Lance. Bowditch, a graduate of the University of Texas, is a former adjunct professor at the College of William & Mary Law School. In addition to playing the role of Good Health Fairy for the group, Bowditch also serves as president of the Beyond Boobs! board. She and her husband, David, live in Gloucester and have two grown children, David and Tilden.
Although Bowditch serves in a purely volunteer capacity for the organization, Gibson doesn’t make any big decisions about the organization without first consulting her cofounder. Messages and phone calls about Beyond Boobs! fly back and forth between the two women constantly. The tight bond they share goes well beyond their business partnership and is evident by the way they finish each other’s sentences during a conversation, creating one seamless flow of thoughts.
“We like to say that between the two of us, we have one brain,” Gibson jokes.
The culture of love and friendship Gibson and Bowditch created is the guide for the Beyond Boobs! Not Your Typical Support systems, where young women diagnosed with breast cancer gather to share their stories and meet new friends.
“We are working to take the fear out of the topic of breast cancer,” Bowditch says. “When I was diagnosed, all I heard were horror stories. Our mission is to provide women with positive examples of what life after breast cancer can be like.”
The group’s reach extends well beyond the women they serve. “Women diagnosed with breast cancer are not living their lives in vacuums,” Gibson says. “They are mothers, wives, daughters, sisters and members of the community. They have families, homes and jobs. By giving them the tools and support they need to fight this disease, we are making communities stronger. We are also empowering all women by educating them about breast health and providing them with the information they need to live a healthy lifestyle.”
As the women whose lives have been transformed by Beyond Boobs! relocate across the country, they take the spirit of the organization with them. In addition to Virginia, support groups have already been established in several other states, including North Carolina, Florida and Texas.
“Beyond Boobs! has changed the paradigm for supporting young women with breast cancer,” Gibson says. “There is no other organization like it.”