The Sisterhood of the Traveling Bras Uplifts a Breast Cancer Survivor Community

“You can still be sexy after cancer!” declared Lisa Tivens as she put the finishing touches on her burlesque-style bra, adorned with roses and lace fringe. Tivens, a breast cancer survivor, was among 12 or so participants in the Cups of Courage–The Sisterhood of the Traveling Bras workshop, which took place at the Oaks Mall in Thousand Oaks on August 22, 2019. The participants, mostly breast cancer survivors and their crafty friends, created reflective works of art on bra canvases.

Cups of Courage–The Sisterhood of the Traveling Bras is an eclectic, festive exhibit designed to raise breast cancer awareness. Ann Hohimer, who founded the traveling exhibit about 15 years ago, hosted the workshop, a pre-event to Paint the Town Pink, a fundraiser at The Oaks Mall on October 1. Each participant’s bra will be displayed along with her photograph and bio and will remain on view at the mall through October. Paint the Town Pink is presented by Los Robles Hospital and The Oaks Mall with all proceeds directly supporting Cancer Support Community VVSB programs and services offered at no charge to participants. 

After losing her mother, cousin and aunt to breast cancer, Hohimer’s mission is to help women remember to get their regular medical checkups and mammograms and to check their own breasts.

Hohimer’s exhibit has evolved since it launched from a Relay 4 Life event where decorated bras hung from the rungs of the booth she tended. She now boasts a collection of nearly 175 bras from workshops that have varied in themes, from a women’s club fashion show where the women modeled their bra creations over solid-colored t-shirts to a women’s motorcycle club’s renditions.

Hohimer opened Thursday’s workshop by presenting all of the supplies (she has a long-time connection to the fabric industry): glue guns, ribbons, decorations, knickknacks, sequins and ornaments. She explained that each finished bra will be beautifully displayed on a mannequin along with a framed photo of the artist and her bio.

Judie Tetzlaff, a five-year breast cancer survivor, attended the workshop with her sister, Nanette Doubler. The sisters created a rose-themed bra. Tetzlaff described her stage 1 diagnosis, but her type of breast cancer was aggressive. Her treatment consisted of two surgeries and chemo. While going through treatment, she designed a note/scrapbook so she could keep her appointments and triumphs organized. She crafted several collage pages filled with inspirational sayings to stay positive and keep her recovery on track. During that time, Tetzlaff and her husband had to cancel a trip to Europe that they’d planned to take with their close friends. Instead of the trip, her husband put in a rose garden for her where she could cultivate the bushes. Her bra is an extension of her garden.

Heather Hickman, a six-year breast cancer survivor, dedicated her bra to her lush garden, too, full of vegetables, shrubs and flowers. It was her “happy place” to go because she couldn’t drive.

“I was bound and couldn’t pull on the steering wheel,” Hickman said. “Not to mention the meds, which made it unsafe to drive. I couldn’t focus on reading, either,” she continued. “It’s frustrating when you can’t do what you want and need to do. Gardening gave me that sense of freedom to go out and do what I wanted.”

Brittany Ek of Camarillo and friend, Kimi, produced a pink-feathered bra with flamingos, dedicated to joy and her “happy place.” While Ek was undergoing treatment two-and-a-half years ago, she and her husband enhanced their backyard and swimming pool with flamingos. Ek said she retreated there because she felt safe and at peace.

Khatereh Abbassi, a 10-year breast cancer survivor, said she wouldn’t be here today if not for the support of her twin daughters and her husband, so she dedicated her lace- and floral-trimmed bra to them. After all the difficult treatment she endured, she lost her husband to a terminal illness last year. She maintains a positive attitude for her daughters.

“You stand up to cancer and move forward!” Abbassi said. “There’s always hope. You never give up!” Abbassi’s creative outlet is helping others. She sets the example for her daughters and wants them to live life with courage.

Lisa Tivens’ diagnosis of stage 1A seemed as though it was caught early, but with a HER2-positive, no BRCA gene meant her regimen would consist of Herceptin, chemotherapy, and radiation. Despite her challenges, she counted on her family—they fueled her positivity. She decided to participate in the  workshop to branch out and give others hope on their journeys.

As she measured her burlesque bra on the mannequin, Tivens noticed the bra looked lopsided and remarked, “What else is new? We’re all a little lopsided!”

When Hohimer held up a peacock bra decorated with blue, green and purple feathers and an ornate brooch, Donna Baharouzi, Cancer Support Community’s development director lit up. It reminded her of her husband’s grandmother, Gilda, who succumbed to cancer. Purple was Gilda’s favorite color. At a previous event, Bharouzi decorated a purple bra with lots of bling to honor Gilda. Baharouzi lost her own grandmother to cancer, which is why events like these are meaningful to her.

 Baharouzi has worked in nonprofit for the past 16 years, and her two years at Cancer Support Community have been most rewarding. Because everyone has been impacted by cancer in some way, she loves that she makes a difference every day when she comes to work and has the opportunity to change lives.

Cancer is daunting with diagnoses that are not always straightforward. Baharouzi says, “While there are new advances toward cures, there is constant need for support and education. Many participants don’t understand the language that doctors speak. We are able to educate them, so that they know what to ask. We help women find the courage to ask pointed questions,” she explains.

“As women share their experiences,” Baharouzi continues, “it is a joy to see participants and staff make connections at the center; many become lifelong friends.”

One Cancer Support Community program, Comedy Night, allows participants to focus on laughter as the best medicine. Baharouzi marvels at how she experiences different senses of humor and how comedy can coexist with a cancer diagnosis.

“Ann has made some of the most outrageous bras and takes the samples on tour with her,” says Baharouzi. “It’s a unique experience, comical and uplifting.

Everyone has art inside of them. Many art forms take survivors away from the immediate “scary.” Baharouzi has seen how humor and other creative outlets inspire people to lighten up and ward off fear so they can focus on healing and recovery. It’s a recurring theme you’ll find within this community.

View these bras at the Paint the Town Pink annual fundraiser at the Oaks Mall on Oct. 1. All proceeds directly support CSCVVSB programs and services. Participants will enjoy great food and drink, wonderful vendors, an incredible silent auction and a good time in a gorgeous setting! The $40 entry fee includes a complimentary cocktail, delicious appetizers and desserts and more. For tickets and more information, visit CancerSupportVVSB.org/paint-the-town-pink/.