Rachelle Panitz is a young breast cancer survivor and Managing Director and Founder of So Brave.
“Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women aged 20-39 years. The So Brave calendar is a celebration of the women and of their bravery in facing breast cancer and in sharing in this bodypainting experience to raise awareness and money to fight this disease. Our young breast cancer survivors truly are SO BRAVE.”
Operating for four years, the So Brave mission is to empower young breast cancer survivors; educate young women across Australia [young women get breast cancer too] and; fund research that better prevents, diagnoses, treats and monitors breast cancer in young women.
So Brave also runs support programs for young women, hosts community events and education programs and manages a research investment program for breast cancer.
Here’s our chat with Rachelle…
You were diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32, with a newborn and a 3-year-old, that caused a massive impact on your family and professional life, can you take us through that.
There’s no other way to say it; breast cancer completely turned my family and professional life upside down. I have no family history or genetic predisposition to breast cancer, and if I hadn’t become aware of what was normal for me while I was breastfeeding my daughter, I might not have realised the lump I found when I was pregnant with my son wasn’t supposed to be there.
I endured nearly 18-months of treatment – surgery, chemo, radiation, immunotherapy and hormone therapy, and that only begins to scratch the surface of my recovery. It was years ago now, but I’m still recovering emotionally and not sure it’s something you ever get over, I’ve just been determined for the whole experience to make me a stronger, more resilient and caring person.
As a family, my husband was the primary carer of not only my son in his first year of life, but of me as well. My daughter, who had never been away from me before my son was born, was suddenly being told not to hug mummy after chemo and any tests involving radiation exposure. As a mother, my role was torn – I was no longer able to breastfeed, no longer able to pick up my crying son straight after chemo, and feeling so tired and unwell that I wasn’t able to play with my kids in what is supposed to be the most important period of bonding with a newborn.
Before my breast cancer diagnosis, I had built my career in Government around business and international relations, working across Australia and in Japan. But that all changed with my diagnosis and I had to walk away from it. In hindsight, while I loved that career, my experience enabled me to truly reflect on what I wanted to do with my life and ultimately whether I wanted to continue down that path; it really put things into perspective.
Apart from the breast cancer diagnosis was there another significant turning point when you decided to start the So Brave project?
The turning point for me was when I realised there was a lack of medical support and information available about the risk of breast cancer and diagnoses in young women. Yes, it’s “rare”, but it still effects the 900 young women under 40 years of age that are diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia each year.
It was the accumulation of frustration, confusion and isolation that led me to decide I had to do something; I harnessed the setback to empower other women.
Breast cancer, like any significant illness causes you to take stock of your life and the direction you’re heading, and for me, I realised how important it was to make sure that other young women realised this isn’t just something that happens once you start getting mammograms. It can happen at a time in your life when everything is busy, and puts everything into both turmoil and perspective.
Initially, what difficulties did you face, when you started the project?
The main difficulties were around the enormity of all the administrative and logistical hurdles; the creation of systems and processes to handle the project in its first stages. There was a lot of learning and a lot of reading, but ultimately, I drew on my organisational skills in order to get the project off the ground.
It’s so important to be organised and ensure you create a process or system as problems arise – don’t put them off or it will just become too big to handle. There’s a lot of business tools out there to help you and they really do help.
Who or what was integral to you overcoming these hurdles?
I was very grateful to have internationally renowned body paint artist, Wendy Fantasia’s expertise and advice in the early days – guiding me through the bodypainting industry and making sure that we had all the foundations right for a successful project. But, overall, there was a lot of work that went into getting the first Calendar off the ground – lots of logistics, a bit of bureaucracy and lots of communication and vision building. I am known for my tenacity, and it definitely held me in good stead from the beginning and even today.
Looking back is there a piece of advice you wish to pass onto someone in business going through an extremely difficult time?
A beautiful business mentor explained the entrepreneur’s journey to me at a conference just after our first launch, and suddenly it all made so much sense. We all face times in business that are amazing, wonderful and exhilarating, but there are also times where we do question why we are doing what we do, and face what at the time, looks like insurmountable odds.
However, if you look back to the last cycle where something like that happened, you realise you did get through it, but wonder how. Setting some time aside to reflect on what it was in you, and externally, that helped to get you out of that pit and back on your journey will help you in the future too.
Recognising that you are in a rut, and refocusing your mindset and your actions on your goals is one very clear and positive message to yourself and to the rest of the world that you aren’t going to let this hurdle knock you over.
What would you say are the top three skills needed to be successful?
Resilience, determination and openness. You need to be able to get back up on your feet – ALL businesses experience bumps along the way – have the drive to keep moving forward and be open to all scenarios and opportunities that come your way, as you never know where they may lead.
Who do you look up to in business? Who inspires you?
There are so many wonderful women who lead the way. In my very specific breast cancer network, dear Connie Johnson, and dear Jane McGrath are of course very close to heart. Their advocacy and vision in changing the experience of breast cancer for women in Australia is astounding and their legacy in both organisation’s that they founded always inspires me.
The women who I’ve worked with, both as So Brave Model Ambassadors, and as friends who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, some who have passed away, are my biggest drivers. It’s so unfair that we are so educated as a society, and yet breast cancer still shocks young women and their doctors. Even more frustrating is that despite all the amazing strides that have happened to get us to where we are today, there is still so much to do in research and we desperately need to support our researchers so they can find the answers and unlock the puzzles of cancer.
What was the best advice that you have been given?
Sitting in the doctor’s surgery, having just heard my diagnosis, my sister in law told me that this was going to be a marathon, not a race. That was sound advice for someone who likes things done quickly and wants to ‘get on’ with it. My sense of self-purpose, the control of my body and my life was shaken to the core in a matter of minutes, but I think the concept that this is a long game has really shaped the outlook of the last 5 years of my life.
How have you personally measured your success?
Success is such a strange concept, but the validation I receive for the work I do from the emotions and reactions the young model ambassadors show when they see their reveal and get to share their stories, are incredibly powerful. I know we’re making such a deep impact from all the examples of life-changing experiences, for not just the young women we work with, but their families, their communities and for everyone we come into contact with, and that’s what drives me forward each day, that’s how I know we’re making a difference.
When you think of your journey, what is the thing you are most proud of?
Two moments come to mind, and they’re both filled with happiness but also sadness. Earlier this year, one of our So Brave model ambassadors was incredibly elated following her reveal, and on the way to the photoshoot said such beautiful words of gratitude and thanks that I will never forget.
I have also been so incredibly privileged to share time with two very beautiful souls, Nyrie and Ria, who have left such a powerful legacy as part of our So Brave family. The fact that this beautiful time shared with them is fixed into time, with their beautiful images forever in our So Brave calendar, for all their family and friends, is just priceless.