How you can model on the catwalk in aid of breast cancer awareness

Keeping Abreast Fashion Show at Open, Norwich 2012. Photo: Steve Adams.

Keeping Abreast Fashion Show at Open, Norwich 2012. Photo: Steve Adams.

Being diagnosed and treated for breast cancer is just the start of a journey for many women who are faced with the disease each year, and for an increasing number of women a Norwich based charity is giving them a lifeline not only in helping them come to terms with a new body but also in getting them back to feeling all woman. EMMA HARROWING reports.

Johanna Gardner modelling at last year's Keeping Abreast fashion show. Photo: Steve Adams.

Johanna Gardner modelling at last year's Keeping Abreast fashion show. Photo: Steve Adams.

Walking down a catwalk modelling the latest fashions in front of hundreds of people can be nerve wracking at the best of times, so imagine strutting your stuff in just your bra and thong.

It sounds like a scene from the latest Gok Wan television show, yet these women, known as 'flashers' have all undergone or are undergoing breast cancer treatment.

Marion Sully from Norwich decided to become a flasher and model as a way of embracing her new look after surgery.

'I felt it was a way of showing the new me and that I was comfortable with my new 'look' and that I had come out the other side of my breast cancer journey after diagnosis, double mastectomy and reconstruction,' says Marion. 'I also did it to inspire other women going through a similar experience.'

Marion, like an increasing number of other breast cancer sufferers, are part of breast cancer support group Keeping Abreast. The charity, which was set up in Norwich and now has its headquarters here, now organises a fashion show in October each year and a fundraising ball in May to raise awareness and vital funds to support women at all stages of breast cancer and breast reconstruction. The flashers are the women that take part in the lingerie section of the fashion show.

'I had my reconstruction in June 2010,' explains Marion. 'I was unable to take part in the 2011 show due to work commitments but I was determined to do the 2012 show.

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'I felt petrified but excited at the same time. The shows are over two nights and the first night was nerve wracking as I had to remember six different routines and I was also taking part in the Dance Challenge which was a street dance routine a group of us learnt in order to raise more money for Keeping Abreast.'

Marion modelled for four different shops - Pure, John Lewis, The Rock Collection and lingerie boutique Pollard and Read.

'You have a choice whether or not you want to model in the lingerie section of the show - but I thought why not,' says Marion. 'I felt I had nothing to hide and a lot of confidence to gain from it. It made me realise that I am still a woman even though I had a complete reconstruction from my stomach fat (called a DIEP flap) I have breast and abdominal scars but I did not mind showing them off. The lingerie set was in a beautiful mint green lace.'

Like many women going through the breast cancer journey Marion has a story to tell. Three weeks after giving birth to her youngest child she suffered from severe mastitis and was referred to a breast specialist. With a family history of breast cancer (Marion's mum had been fighting breast cancer for six years at the time) Marion had regular check ups.

'It was almost ten years later that I was recalled after a routine mammogram and after several tests I was diagnosed with widespread cancer in my left breast. It was decided that the best treatment for me was to have both breasts removed and reconstruction performed at the same time, in all a ten and a half hour operation. I had no spread to the lymph nodes which meant no further treatment. I'm now continuing my yearly reviews as I still have some breast tissue left.'

For Marion the whole experience of taking part in a fashion show gave her renewed confidence. Usually thought of as a fluffy frivolous pursuit, having a makeover gave Marion the boost she needed to embrace her new body.

'Being pampered, having your hair and makeup done and wearing fabulous clothes was the icing on the cake and added to the overall feel-good factor of the show,' says Marion.

'Modelling as part of the Keeping Abreast show helped my body image and my physical and mental health. I had four operations in all and after each one I needed a period of adjustment for the 'new' me as my body constantly changed. Now I am proud of my flat stomach and the skill of my surgeon in creating my new breasts and I wanted to share the physical change with others to show I am happy with who I am. The experience also made me more positive and gave me a strong network of friends who have also gone through the trauma of breast cancer and have their own stories to share. Talking about and sharing the modelling experience with the ladies helped me regain my confidence and positive outlook.'

One of the other women who shared Marion's experience as a flasher on the catwalk was 56 year old Johanna Gardner from Worstead. It was also Johanna's first time modelling at the Keeping Abreast show.

'When I attended my first Keeping Abreast meeting at the Norfolk and Norwich University hospital I was made to feel so welcome that I wanted to give something back,' says Johanna. 'It was here that I first saw the flashers, these brave women who proved that just because they have had a masectomy or reconstruction surgery or had visible scars they were still all woman. It was a very emotional experience. It was then that I decided that I wanted to be part of that, after all if I wanted to model for the Keeping Abreast show I might as well throw myself in at the deep end!'

Johanna was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of 2010.

'I had a mastectomy and then another operation later on to have a lymph node removed after they discovered a cancerous cell. My chemotherapy finished in August 2010 and I then had 17 sessions of Herceptin which finished in July 2011. During this time Keeping Abreast helped me research the different options of breast reconstruction and I opted for implants. When I modelled lingerie on the catwalk last year I didn't have a nipple, this reconstruction surgery took place after the show. Over the last few months I had the areole tattoo done so that my breasts look more like the real thing.

'Modelling for the show made me aware of how breast cancer can effect us women in so many different ways. It's a great help just having someone there to listen and being there and listening to others.'

Marion agrees, adding that the whole experience is a good step towards women feeling that they can look and feel feminine again.

'Everyone has their own way of dealing with their journey, however I feel the experience of modelling with ladies who have undergone a similar journey is a positive experience. It's a good way to rebuild self-esteem and confidence and in participating it can also inspire others.'

The Keeping Abreast Fashion Show takes place on October 23 and 24 at Open on Bank Plain.

Model on the catwalk for 2013

Keeping Abreast is looking for women at all stages of breast cancer and for those who have the BRCA gene to take part in the fashion show in October this year. The charity is looking for 26 women to take to the catwalk to model outfits from a range of high street and independent boutiques, including, if they wish the lingerie section. The aim is to highlight how breast cancer can effect all age groups, so the selection process will take this into account so that a good balance is shown on stage.

If you would like to follow in Marion and Johanna's footsteps and walk the walk in October you can apply by requesting an application form from Victoria White on 07799 258084 or email or Tracey Burlingham on 07796 126506 or

The deadline for applications is April 30 2013. If you are selected you must be available from 10am until 11pm on October 23 and 24 and you must be available for rehearsals, dates of which will be announced in advance.