By Stacey Gualandi
When Sharon Blynn was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2000, she was a vibrant music executive living in New York City…and she was only 28 years old.
“One of the most profound teachings has been about learning to truly love myself at my deepest core.”
It was a devastating life-altering moment followed by three years of treatment and the demoralizing loss of her hair. She bravely shaved her head and eventually conquered this silent disease. Now eight years cancer-free, the actress and model chooses to remain bald.
In 2003, she created baldisbeautiful.org to redefine beauty and dispel the stigma of hair loss from cancer. As a result, Sharon inspires survivors and caregivers throughout the world. She is this month’s Revlon Role Model in an advertisement in People.
Sharon has a powerful message, and after meeting this one-woman ovarian cancer-awareness-advocate in person, it was easy to see her beauty, both inside and out…
EYE: What was your life like before cancer?
SHARON: Well, I worked in the music business 16 hours a day, eating once a day and not taking care of myself. The first ten years of my life in New York City I was up every night until 5 a.m. My “religion” was music, and jazz clubs were my temple. I had dedicated myself to my job and life in the music biz. Slowing down and relaxing was a rare gift I gave to myself.
“When I first heard the word “cancer,” time stopped and at the same time everything moved into hyper-drive.”
EYE: How did you process your cancer diagnosis?
SHARON: My first thoughts were, in this order, “I’m too young to die,” and then “Holy crap, I’m going to lose my hair!” Then I automatically went into survivor-warrior-research mode, “I can do this. I’m not going to die. Screw that!”
When I first heard the word “cancer,” time stopped and at the same time everything moved into hyper-drive. There is no time to ponder, to philosophize. Its life and death staring you square in the eyes.
I hadn’t really heard of ovarian cancer before then. I had a very difficult time finding resources and support for people my age. Even in several “youth groups” I found that the youngest at the time was around 35. I was 28, and all of those support groups often reinforced the idea that I was simply too young to be going through this.
Everyone always talks about breast cancer. It’s all pink ribbons and bows with major international awareness and fundraising campaigns and lobbying movements to get insurance companies to cover the cost of mammogram screenings.
There is nothing about ovarian cancer especially during the course of regular ob/gyn exams. There’s no test, no screening, no marker. It’s a non-issue … until it isn’t.
EYE: What is baldisbeautiful.org?
SHARON: The premise of “Bald Is Beautiful” is that the media have the opportunity to present an image that is positive and empowering and would make countless people feel better at a time in their lives when they really need that kind of societal support.
When I was going through treatment, I noticed a predominance of negative, one-dimensional images of women were perpetuated in TV, film, commercials, fashion and beauty magazines.
Those images often make women feel worse than they already might feel when their bodies change, temporarily or permanently, due to a health journey like cancer.
With one ad at a time, one TV appearance at a time, one group of young people or cancer patients at a time, even one email exchange through my website, I share my journey and my message.
Every person who finds a moment of joy, a kernel of hope, the inspiration to try something they hadn’t thought of before, is a success.
If people see a happy, pretty, smiling bald woman in the mainstream media, they will at least have a positive reference of what this look can mean for themselves and how they can also find joy within the painful experiences. It is completely in our domain to define ourselves on our own terms, in sickness and in health, until death to us departed! Hence, “Bald Is Beautiful” was born.
EYE: Describe your cancer journey…
SHARON: I have found my cancer journey to be an extraordinary, life-affirming, deeply healing experience. While the physical aspects of cancer are enormously painful — beyond what I could even comprehend until I actually went through it — it has been a profoundly positive and expansive part of my life and living.
I am healthier in mind, body, and spirit than I was before having cancer. It heightened and intensified every experience — both good and bad ones — in my life. I had an innate sense that the only thing I could do was to embrace every part of this experience as my teacher–a bitchy, hard-ass teacher — I’m not going to like her, but I’m going to learn a lot.
Instead of the generic “why me?” question, I became keenly present with myself and everything and everyone that was in my life. The highs are far and wide from this vantage point!
EYE: What did you learn from this “hard-ass” teacher?
SHARON: One of the most profound teachings has been about learning to truly love myself at my deepest core. To shine a light in the innermost shadows of my spirit – those pockets of self-doubt, fear, feelings of inadequacy – that still lived in me, even if they were only revealed in subtle, unconscious ways.
The most difficult, and often infuriating, lesson was learning to not only ask for help, but to be at peace with being the one in need of help. Sometimes it was torturous for me to open my mouth and make a request for something I would ordinarily just do on my own.
To that end, a major lesson was to give myself the same nurturing, compassion, attention, care, tenderness, and patience that I usually directed towards others.The lessons are ongoing, and thankfully I graduated, and continue to do my post-graduate work in self-love, acceptance, patience, and actively living a healthy mind-body-spirit lifestyle.
“The cancer cells wanted to live and so did I!”
EYE: How low were the low moments?
SHARON: The lowest moments would have to be the physical and emotional hardships of chemotherapy. My body felt like it was simultaneously crumbling from inside me while struggling to hold itself together.
At my core, at a cellular level, my body was in the ultimate, epic battle for life.The cancer cells wanted to live and so did I!
EYE: You received the 2010 Lilly Tartikoff/EIF Hope Award at the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship’s Annual Gala in Washington, DC. This video shows how much your twin sister Elisa means to you. And as you talk about her now, why the tears?
SHARON: I was and am blessed to have a powerful posse of angels in my life. My twin sister, Elisa, was my main caregiver, soul mate, womb-mate, my monozygotian ocean of love. She and my brother, Jeremy, both being artists and on their own schedules, were able to spend large chunks of time away from New York to take care of me, support me, be there for me.
My boyfriend at the time, Bluey, lived in London, and he commuted from across the ocean to Miami for every procedure and treatment. He also provided the bulk of my financial support as I was stone cold broke when I was diagnosed! My family and close friends all found their own ways to support me from near and far.
When it comes to caregivers, I’m very clear to tell people that just sitting in the room is enough. Or just to call. Or just say I love you.
There’s not a lot that any of us can do, but just your presence is everything; you don’t have to do anything. If I open my eyes and see someone sitting there, I can’t even quantify what you just did for me.
I know that many people go through this journey on their own, and I encourage them to open their eyes and hearts and be willing to reach out to find the support network that truly is available to all of us, often from the most unexpected people and places.
“Those first three years – no dairy, no sugar, no wheat, no give.”
EYE: What was your “everything-and-the-kitchen-sink” approach to dealing with your cancer journey?
SHARON: I have close friends who actively integrate a wide array of spiritual and wellness activities into their lifestyles, from different religion, prayer, and meditation practices to acupuncture, herbs, and crystals to nutrition, yoga and good ole’-fashioned exercise in the gym.
At the time I was diagnosed, a close family friend of ours had just finished five years of Chinese herbs and acupuncture study. He introduced me to one of his professors who put together an integrative plan of eastern methods with western medicine for me.
Another friend of mine had been working for years with a medical intuitive who uses her special abilities to find the cause of physical pain, and she became a long-time presence in my life even after I was in remission.
With those two things in place from the outset, everything else fell into place very organically. There was no trial-and-error; it was a complete and instantaneous lifestyle overhaul at an almost militant level of implementation.
Those first three years – no dairy, no sugar, no wheat, no give. It was a time of intense focus and full-immersion on every level. I didn’t just automatically shift everything and become more spiritual post-cancer.
“‘Bald Is Beautiful’ came out of my own shift from fear to fierceness.”
EYE: Why did you turn your personal journey into a very public mission?
SHARON: I found so much empowerment and positivity in my journey. It brought everything I had known about cancer and what that journey looks like into proper perspective.
“Bald Is Beautiful” came out of my own shift from fear to fierceness. I met women along the way who had a harder time with losing their hair than losing breasts or reproductive organs!!
The hair grows back while these other changes are more long-term or permanent, so it seemed extremely out of balance and unfair, frankly, that we had to carry this burden while fighting for our lives.
Are you going to enjoy every last moment or are you going to spend all that time obsessing and being negative? In any life experience you have that choice, so what I want to do is put out the idea that there are other ways to experience every aspect of this journey than you might not have thought of.
Let’s have fun with it – shift the attitude. “Bald is Beautiful” isn’t “don’t cover your head; it’s you’re going to cover your head so just change your attitude about it.”
EYE: Why is it so hard for women to lose their hair?
SHARON: One of the hardest parts about the hair loss is the physical experience of it coming out. It is absolutely beyond our control. If hair loss is a side effect of the chemo cocktail a woman is on, there ain’t nothing she can do to stop the follicles from releasing the hair!
After that, I think it’s the social pressure of hair’s apparently or supposedly integral part of our femininity and beauty. It is the most outwardly visible part of the journey. Everything else about cancer itself is invisible, and we can use clothing and prosthetics to “mask” other bodily changes along the way.
While wigs are available for the same purpose, people can usually tell it’s a wig, or it could be on crooked, or the wind could whisk it away. Ultimately, when we are standing naked in the mirror — something which many women going through cancer are unable to lovingly do — we are the ones scrutinizing ourselves, and all that we and our surrounding community have come to know as the “defining” features of our beauty, attractiveness, womanhood are put under stark focus.
EYE: What have you achieved through “Bald is Beautiful”?
SHARON: In terms of quantifiable successes, I was part of an international TV and print campaign for Bristol-Myers Squibb in which I spoke, in my own words, about finding beauty and joy in the cancer journey and got to say the catch-phrase “Bald Is Beautiful” for the whole world to see and hear!
I was selected by Kenneth Cole to be part of his “We All Walk in Different Shoes” national print campaign. Most recently, I was the poster girl for the 2011 Revlon Run/Walk for Women with posters and full page local and national ads.
I hosted the PBS documentary “The Whisper: The Silent Crisis of Ovarian Cancer”, which premiered in NYC last year and goes national this coming September.
Lifetime Television chose me for their “Remarkable Women” award. I have done speaking appearances on behalf of The American Cancer Society, and Gilda’s Club, as well as motivational speaking representing my “Bald Is Beautiful” message across the country.
Recently, I took it across the ocean to Madrid and Seville to speak to over 3,500 young people ages 15-20 as part of an organization to promote positivity and inspiration to young people all over the world.
On a more “local” level, I correspond to people individually through my website, and have received many emails over the years from people for whom my site has been an inspiration, a comfort, a resource, and a cyber hug for patients and caregivers alike.
EYE: What is the best thing about being bald?
SHARON: There are so many!! I save so much time and money! It’s wash ‘n wear! It takes 10 minutes or so to shave, and “voila!” I am ready to go! Losing my hair was the gateway to me seeing myself, truly seeing ME.
When I looked in the mirror for the first time after I shaved my head during chemo, I looked straight into my own eyes. I was completely clothed, and yet I was never more naked. No frills. Just me, Sharon.
“I feel clarity of purpose and a sharp focus for my passion and ambition.”
EYE: What does it mean to you to be 38, an advocate and cancer-free?
SHARON: It means the world to me. I feel clarity of purpose and a sharp focus for my passion and ambition. I feel empowered. It means so much that I took what was a spark, an idea, and have made my vision into reality – in some cases, making my dreams come true! It fills my heart and soul with gratitude and love.
EYE: What makes you such a good role model – a “modern day crusader” – for those struggling in their own personal journey?
SHARON: My young age, fresh approach, positive and upbeat attitude makes me available and relatable to people from all walks of life.
And my groovy glam fashionista photos are fun to look at, too! Seriously, though, I have received emails from men, women, and children from all over the world and feel so blessed and honored to be someone that they feel they can reach out to for the support they need during such a challenging, life-changing journey.
I am especially gratified to know that many ovarian cancer patients have found me and are inspired to share in spreading the word about this “silent killer.”
If just one person was given a little more hope and empowerment from my “Bald is Beautiful” message, then mission accomplished…and I must continue to bring it to the masses!
EYE: Will you ever grow your hair again?
SHARON: Maybe. When I first started the website, I decided I would stay bald for a year and see what happens. When things started to really connect in 2008, I extended the timeline to my five-year cancer-free anniversary.
At that point, I had really begun to have some real momentum and success, so I finally decided that I would let it ride and that I would know if and when it would be the “right time” to play around with a new hairdo.
If I don’t like it, I know I can always shave it off and start over again! For now, I shave about once a week. And for the foreseeable future, it’s “Bald Is Beautiful” all day, every day!
EYE: What are your future goals?
SHARON: I am currently writing a book. But my pie-in-the-sky dreams for “Bald is Beautiful” are these: 1) a billboard in Times Square, 2) a major brand cosmetics’ campaign, 3) a fashion spread, 4) an interview with Oprah, 5) a recurring role on a TV series to keep putting the image in people’s minds on a regular basis.
EYE: If there is one “take away” from your amazing journey, what would it be?
SHARON: It’s all about attitude. It’s about finding your inner bald woman in life whether you have hair or not. It’s about letting what’s inside you define who you are. Just walk tall.
EYE: I am so glad that I got to meet you. We’ll be watching for your documentary in September! See you in Times Square!!!