After year of hospital visits, a guided lumpectomy, a mastectomy and an infection post-reconstructive breast surgery, Tamiko Bilbro-Nicholson was having a good day Saturday.
All eyes were on her as she walked on stage in the Orr Building to cheers, waved, did a spin and then posed. After a makeover, she was decked out in a plaid long-sleeve shirt, vest, jeans and gold jewelry. Her hair sat in loose curls, layered with subtle red highlights.
After her mastectomy, she couldn’t use her arms as much to do her hair and would keep it in braids, she said.
“I like my hair best,” Bilbro-Nicholson, 46, of Pawnee, said with a smile.
Bilbro-Nicholson was one of three breast cancer “Super Survivors” honored with a makeover Saturday during the ninth annual Be Aware Women’s Fair.
About 1,500 people visited the state fairgrounds to attend the women’s fair, which is sponsored by the Memorial Medical Center Foundation, this year, according to Tiffany Lowers, the fair’s organizing committee chair. The Orr Building was filled with more than 100 businesses and local organizations that offered exhibits and demonstrations related to women’s wellness, education, apparel and food.
The building buzzed with energy. Pink everything — from shirts to mohawks to bras — wasn’t an unusual sight. Women lazed on massage chairs as professionals kneaded their backs.
“It was a good day to have a good day — that’s our motto,” Lowers said.
A $5 entry fee allowed them to sample about 31 health screenings, which is the highest number of health tests the fair has ever had, Lowers said. She has seen attendees line up before the doors open and use the fair as their once-a-year checkup.
Though mammograms aren’t offered — “No one’s going to want to come to the Orr Building for a mammogram,” Lowers joked — Memorial’s new machine with curved instead of flat paddles were on display and schedulers were nearby.
“It doesn’t just stop at the event,” Lowers said. “At least, here we can have a conversation that leads to the next steps.”
All of the proceeds from the event goes to a breast cancer patient assistance fund, which buys “all the things that you never think about but make treatment easier,” Lowers said. Prepared meals, massages, compression gloves and wigs were some of items the fund covered. Lowers estimated that thousands of dollars were raised for the fund, though an accurate number would not be calculated until later.
Beth Miller, 64, of Springfield got three health screenings. She found out her blood type was O negative and that her blood pressure was high.
“They told me I was normal!” Miller joked, referring to her blood sugar.
Miller was talking to her friend Suzy Lobb, a Memorial Medical Center employee manning the fair’s newest exhibit: a large inflatable colon coupled with poop emoji balloons.
Attendees walked through the colon and learned about how polyps, which often start as the size of a pen nub, can grow and spread if undetected and untreated.
Colon cancer affects men and women equally, yet is often perceived to be plague only men. To break down the fear around colonoscopies, Lobb said she handed out more than 250 prep kits to fair visitors.
Though a normal part of the body, people often turned up their noses at anything to do with human feces. Lobb said she had to persuade people to even walk through the inflatable colon.
“We are trying to take away the stigma (around colons),”Lobb, who was wearing a poop emoji hat, said.
The more glamorous bit of the fair — the unveiling of the Super Survivors’ makeovers — happened around noon. This year, there were 30 nominations for Super Survivors, all of which are made in July, Lowers said.
Because all of the stories of breast cancer survivors tend to be inspiration and amazing, Lowers said, the three Super Survivors are drawn at random. Other than Bilbro-Nicholson, the other two Super Survivors were Kim Hart of Edinburg and Laura Beth Pemberton of Rochester.
Shannon Whitcomb-Ayers of Springfield nominated Bilbro-Nicholson. First co-workers at Walmart, they became friends and then confidants when Bilbro-Nicholson was diagnosed with breast cancer in May of last year. Whitcomb-Ayers’ mother was a breast cancer survivor and her grandmother died of breast cancer so she knew the toll it could take on a family, she said.
Bilbro-Nicholson’s positive attitude moved Whitcomb-Ayers to nominate her, she said.
“She doesn’t let her problems affect how she treats people,” Whitcomb-Ayers said. “She never takes out her bad days on others.”
Bilbro-Nicholson did have some bad days, though. As a Marine posted overseas, her son had to hear about her breast cancer when he came to visit. A guided lumpectomy didn’t take, so her whole breast had to be removed. An infection from reconstructive surgery led her to having a gaping wound where her breast used to be.
“I just couldn’t look at it,” Bilbro-Nicholson said, of her wound.
She didn’t want to worry her youngest two children to worry and never had an explicit “cancer” discussion with them. For two months, her husband would pile gauze on her wound in the morning before her children woke up.
“I tried to be normal,” Bilbro-Nicholson said. “As much as I could, I didn’t want to lay in bed all day.”
Bilbro-Nicholson said she was especially sensitive to how her breast cancer battle might weigh on her 10-year-old daughter Ellease. She hasn’t seen any of Bilbro-Nicholson’s surgery scars, yet.
She didn’t want her daughter to be afraid of her changing body or of becoming a woman.
“I don’t want her to see that fear,” Bilbro-Nicholson said. “I’ve got time to her educate her.”
Contact Crystal Thomas: 788-1528, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/crystalclear224.