Baring it all: Hadassah’s unique approach empowers women who have survived breast cancer

Baring it all: Hadassah’s unique approach empowers women who have survived breast cancer

Painted model from Greater Atlanta’s ”Breast Strokes” fundraiser. (Photos provided by Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh)
Painted model from Greater Atlanta’s ”Breast Strokes” fundraiser. (Photos provided by Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh)

Local survivors of breast cancer and their female family members and friends are invited by Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh to bare their breasts — and be decorated — at an upcoming event in October dubbed “Painting by Numbers: 32B, 34C, 36D.”

Ten women have already volunteered to have a female artist paint images on their bodies — from their shoulder blades to the their waists — and then be photographed by a female photographer. The photos will then be reproduced on stretched canvases and displayed and auctioned at a Pittsburgh area art gallery sometime next spring. One hundred percent of the sale’s proceeds will go to breast cancer research.

The event is intended to empower the models, many of whom have had double or single mastectomies, lumpectomies or reconstructive surgery, according to Barb Scheinberg, president of Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh.

The identities of the women participating will be kept confidential, and their faces will not be shown in the photographs.

“All the models’ names will be anonymous,” Scheinberg said. “Everyone will be in her own private room, with the artist, and will be photographed in a private room.”

Similar events have been sponsored by other Hadassah chapters across the country in the last few years.  In Delray Beach, Fla., they called it “Paint the Tatas,” and in Charlotte, N.C., it was titled “Celebrate the Tatas.” In Atlanta, it was “Breast Strokes.”

Marge Brownstein, 72, volunteered to model immediately after she heard about the fundraiser in Florida, she said.

The event was not only “a lot of fun,” said Brownstein, a breast cancer survivor of six years and president of the Golda Leah chapter of Hadassah, but it was also “a great way to bring the importance of breast cancer awareness out in the open.”

Brownstein chose to have a painting called “Hope” replicated on her chest, she said. The work depicted a man sitting with his bass fiddle, along with doves, and was particularly meaningful to Brownstein, whose son is a bassist with the group Disco Biscuits.

Forty-eight women participated as models at the Florida event, and the sense of camaraderie was palpable, Brownstein said. Although the women were given hospital gowns to wear while their body paint was drying, most of them chose to walk around bare-chested to show off their art to one another.

“It was such a fun experience,” Brownstein recalled. “There was no modesty. Some people had had a double mastectomy, some had had a lumpectomy, and some had not had cancer. There were young women, and old women. It was inspiring.”

In Pittsburgh, the individual designs that will painted on each body will be selected by the artist with input from the model, Sheinberg said.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women, except for skin cancers, with about 12 percent of women in the United States developing the disease during their lifetime. The risk of developing breast cancer is slightly higher among Jewish women than among other women due the high prevalence of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations in Ashkenazi Jews.

The women who have volunteered so far for “Painting by Numbers” range in age from 50 to late 70s, but Scheinberg hopes more women of all ages will agree to model.

Nancy Shuman, a past president of Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh, and a member of the organization’s national board, volunteered to model as soon as she heard of the event.

“Why not?” said Shuman, 74, who is a 26-year survivor of breast cancer. “I will bare my chest. Nobody will know who I am.”

For Shuman, whose sister is also a breast cancer survivor, it is imperative to raise awareness of treatment options for the disease. She believes that her sister would not be alive today had she not spent the time researching treatments.

“It’s a terrific fundraiser,” said Shuman, noting that other Hadassah chapters have raised tens of thousands of dollars to support breast cancer research.

The event is meant to be “empowering,” according to Francine Surloff, director of Hadassah Greater Pittsburgh.

Surloff, who lost her sister to breast cancer, said the models are proud of their bodies despite having undergone a range of treatments.

“A lot of them have not had reconstructive surgery,” Surloff said. “We are celebrating those who are survivors in all forms and all shapes.”

Photographer Elizabeth Craig will be donating her time for the event.

“I think this will be incredibly empowering for breast cancer survivors,” Craig said. “It’s such a statement for these women to say, ‘I survived, and I’m taking control.’ And it will be a beautiful outlet for the families who may have lost someone to the disease.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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