- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 17, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

What if you couldn’t find a fashionable dress or a form-fitting swimsuit because you had a mastectomy or have been badly disfigured scarred by cancer surgery and radiation treatments? What if you couldn’t afford to pay for customized clothing or hair coverings or makeup because you have no insurance, and even if you did, the insurer refused to pay for such “cosmetic” accoutrements?

Check out Alexandra Boos, a full-figured beauty with the Ford Modeling Agency, and Minoo Mobin-Ventura, co-owner and lead designer of Belafigura designs. They have teamed up others to provide products, resources and services for the uninsured and the underinsured that may be just as critical to a female cancer patient’s well-being as chemotherapy.

“Watching my mom, I got to see that how we feel on the outside affects our health and well-being,” said Ms. Boos, executive director of the Clarity Breast Cancer Foundation. Ms. Boos helped establish the organization in honor of mother, a survivor who was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago

Fortunately, her mother had insurance and could afford the costly items that she needed to make her feel like herself through recovery.

“When we started out a year ago, we thought we would be serving low-income women, but now we have women who have lost their jobs with six-figure salaries and insurance policies who are calling us,” Ms. Boos said.

For Mrs. Mobin-Ventura, helping women to achieve and maintain outward beauty to boost their spirits during treatment and recovery hits even closer to home. For more than five years, she has survived a rare form of cancer that required four surgeries.

“My stomach was stretched and I had a surgery scar across my back, and I asked: ‘How do I wear a swimsuit?’ ”

She got busy designing her specialty line with colorful, stretch fabrics like “Moroccan spice.”

“Women who have cancer shouldn’t have to go to a boutique and hide,” said. “You should feel comfortable with what you wear.”

The pair teamed up recently to host a Fashionista High Tea at the ClaritycenterRX in Alexandria. It is owned by the foundation’s founders, David Magsumbol and David Hamblin saw a need to assist clients with cancer that could not afford their services and did not have insurance.

Patrons, nibbling tea sandwiches and sipping Bellinis, shouted “ooh” and “ahh” as models - some of them cancer survivors like Nancy Palleschi, sporting a black faux leather swimsuit - strutted their stuff in Belafigura beach and swimwear, designed for women who have had mastectomies or other treatment disfigurements.

“I wanted to make it attractive but cover some areas,” said Mrs. Mobin-Ventura. She added that she is committed to providing reasonably priced, cutting-edge couture to curvy women with or without mastectomy.

Nicer women you won’t meet. In fact, it was chance meetings at Saks Fifth Avenue in the District that brought togetherMs. Boos of Alexandria, Mrs. Mobin-Ventura of Gaithersburg and Gurvir Dhindsa, Fox 5 news anchor and the emcee for the May 9 fundraiser.

Participants were asked to purchase a swimsuit for themselves and one for a Clarity recipient. They were able to raise more money, Mrs. Mobin-Ventura said, because the models, who are professionals, worked pro bono.

The staff of ClaritycenterRX demonstrated their specialized products for female cancer patients, which include lymphedema compression wear, post-surgical garments, prostheses and bras, customized wigs and headwear, skin care products designed for radiation burn and dry scalp, and non-carcinogenic deodorants.

The foundation also offers educational grants for survivors interested in changing their vocation to a field that helps other breast cancer patients.

The Clarity foundation’s main goal is to allow women to have dignity as they go through the recovery process. “There’s a lot of shame around breast cancer,” Ms. Boos said.

Applicants can apply online or by phone for financial assistance with co-pays or full payment for most items anywhere in the U.S. Ms. Boos talked about one caller who was insured but could not afford money for gas to travel to the nearest town to get her cancer treatment.

According to statistics provided by the Clarity foundation, the overall cost for treating a typical breast cancer patient will top $50,000, one in five cancer patients with insurance will use up all or most of their savings during the course of treatment, and 43 percent of cancer patients report skipping treatments or not filling prescriptions because of the cost.

Ms. Boos, a 39-year-old Michigan native who lived in New York until moving to Alexandria a few years ago, is now raising her 4-year-old son as a single mom. Previously, during her 20-year stint with the Ford modeling agency, Ms. Boos had worked with teens and young women to help build their self-esteem and self-acceptance regardless of body type or size.

“I wanted to take my experience in fashion and media and put them to a good cause,” she said. Ms. Boos calls her charity work “a moving mediation of love” because she “believe that God leads you where you need to go.”

“I knew it was kismet,” she said, when she met Mrs. Mobin-Ventura. The model met the designer while on an assignment at Saks where Mrs. Mobin-Ventura is the manager of the fur salon. They discussed collaborating on their separate projects to help breast cancer patients and survivors.

Mrs. Mobin-Ventura, 35, who grew up in Chevy Chase and graduated from the Art Institute of Florida and Marymount University, told fashion patrons at the eventthat finally getting her Belafigura line going “didn’t happen overnight.”

“I was getting slammed everywhere,” she said during a later interview to explain the ups and downs she endured. At one point, as the recession worsened, she had to put her company on hold and go back to work in retail. Between her numerous painful surgeries - one to remove a kidney - she divorced, remarried and gave birth to a second “miracle” son.

Mrs. Mobin-Ventura, too, said that her experience led her to this line of work and the challenge to help others keeps her going. “This is where the calling is; this is where the need is,” she said. “There’s always a reason to help, that’s what it’s all about.”

c For more information, visit www.claritybcf.org.

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