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ArtBra in Southington helps fund integrated medicine programs in fight against cancer

SOUTHINGTON — Cheers and hollers erupted from guests at the ArtBra Fundraiser hosted by After the Storm Inc. as the first model came strutting down the runway in a bra and skirt outfit inspired by the Roman huntress “Diana.”

The outfit was completed with a toy bow and arrow and the model posed at the end of the walkway, even going as far as pointing her toy weapon at audience members. She continued entertaining the crowd as the auctioneer began.

“This isn’t an art bra. It’s an art outfit,” he exclaimed while enticing audience members to raise the bidding, which soon reached a winning bid of $550.

All the bras were created and donated by local artists. From a purple unicorn bra to a bra with working toy helicopter fans, the elaborate, wearable art was inspired by the strength and courage of cancer survivors. As the night went on, the bra bids went higher and higher. The final bra, a Carnival-inspired Mariposa Ruby bra, sold for $3,100.

ArtBra Fundraiser was a half-cocktail hour and half-runway show that raises money to fund local free integrated medicine programs for cancer survivors by auctioning one-of-a-kind, handmade themed bras. It was held at the Aqua Turf Club on Thursday.

“Unless you’re diagnosed, I don’t necessarily think people realize the benefits of integrated medicine services,” said Christine Willett, founder and president of After the Storm Inc. “If you’re not personally connected to a survivor, you probably don’t understand the benefits of sound therapy or journaling or equine therapy and how important it is to those going through treatment.”

At the time of publication, Willett didn’t know the total amount raised at Thursday’s event. The last show in 2019 raised $60,000.

Care of the person

The American Cancer Society estimates Connecticut will have 22,810 new cancer cases in 2022, the most common being breast cancer, with 3,550 new cases and 420 deaths.

Willett was diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer in 2007 while pregnant with her second son.

As part of her treatment at Middlesex Hospital’s Cancer Center, she participated in several free clinical trials for integrated medicine, a holistic approach to cancer treatment aimed at treating a patient’s body and mind as they fight cancer. Services may include acupuncture, nutrition counseling, yoga, therapeutic art and journaling.

Willett said it felt like her head was “on straighter” when she left the integrated medicine session.

However, Willett recognized that she was privileged to get these services for free.

“It’s hard when you’re going through treatment and you want to feel better and you know how you can feel better, but then you’re trying to shell out $60 to $90 a session in order for that to happen,” she explained.

Willett founded After the Storm Inc. in 2009 to fund integrated medicine programs at local hospitals so that other cancer patients and survivors can feel the peace she experienced during her treatment. She said they have helped over 7,509 cancer survivors.

All proceeds raised go to five organizations – Middlesex Cancer Center, MidState Medical Center, Griffin Health Hospital, Bristol Hospital and the ECHO Cancer Foundation. Each center offers a number of integrated medicine services to individualize cancer care.

Survivor empowerment

Lara Hajek, a breast cancer survivor, has been a model for ArtBra since 2018. She said it’s an experience like no other because it pushes her out of her comfort zone.

“I don’t even wear a bikini to the beach,” she said. “So you’ve got to wear these amazing art bras and you just walk the runway and have fun with it.”

Hajek was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017 at 42 years old. Over the following year, she went through numerous rounds of chemotherapy and radiation and a double mastectomy with reconstruction surgery.

On her first runway, Hajek walked with one of her friends who is also a survivor.

“From the show and talking and doing [the runway] with other survivors, they know what you went through and they understand and it’s the same thing with me; I understand them,” she said. “I’ll never forget that first time I got on that stage, having that special moment and the confidence to do this.”

This year, Hajek came out dancing the “Jiggle Jiggle” from TikTok and wearing a casino-inspired bra with dice on the nipples. She said that her 18-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son spent weeks trying to teach her the viral dance.

“If somebody gets this on video, it better go viral,” Hajek said, laughing. “If I’m spending all this time trying to perfect it, it better go viral.”

Six of the 15 runway models are cancer survivors, which is an aspect of the show that Willett is very proud of.

“We really wanted for cancer survivors to be able to go up [on the runway] and own it and model their own creations or model creations people made for them,” she said.

Man Show

To wrap up the auction, John Mayo, Willett’s coworker and designated work husband, came out on the runway wearing a large cone bra made of red Solo cups with a matching drink helmet and cup necklace.

Four other men followed him, all wearing bras inspired by famous country songs from Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” to Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried.”

As the men walked past Mayo’s protruding cup boobs, he poured small shots of beer into red Solo shot glasses and passed it around. Every model had the opportunity to strut and twerk down the runway to the song that inspired the bra.

“It’s incredible, it’s fun and it’s embarrassing all at the same time,” he said.

This is Mayo’s third year participating in the infamous man show. He was inspired to join after working with Willett at Ridge Road Elementary School and hearing her story.

The mastermind behind the men’s show was Willett’s husband, Bruce, because he thought it would be a good way to keep the audience entertained and raise more money.

“When you’re going to a fundraiser, it’s not usually auctioning man bras off of a runway,” she said.

This year, the men involved included Willett’s husband, her 18-year-old son, one of her high school friends, a former student and another teacher coworker.

On stage, Willett shared a tender moment with her son, who was three at the time of her diagnosis. She proudly exclaimed that although this was her son’s first time walking the runway, he had made more money than his dad ever did.

Health Equity Reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. To learn more about RFA go to reportforamerica.org. Villalonga-Vivoni can be reached at cvillalonga@record-journal.com or 203-317-2448.

Check out more photos from Art Bra 2022

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