by Kelsey Harper
In the first of a series that focuses on breast cancer education, prevention, and survival, we introduce you to our partner organization, The Breasties, through its Chief of Wellness, Jess Bonilla.
One in eight women will develop breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, a sobering statistic made even more staggering when you consider the number people affected by just one individual’s journey.
Jess's life was forever altered when her best friend, Allie Brudner Brumel, at the age of 28, was diagnosed with stage two triple-negative breast cancer and discovered that she was a carrier of the BRCA1 gene mutation.
“When [Allie] was diagnosed, I completely fell into taking care of her and I wanted to be there for her. I wanted to be a rock and a source of strength for her,” Jess says. “So that’s what my world became.”
“Before her cancer diagnosis we were working together, we were working out together, we were having dinner together, we literally did everything together.”
“It was a really hard hit for me and I wanted to be there for her.”
The simple, compassionate, and loving desire to be there for someone who is going through something unimaginably difficult is at the center of The Breasties’ mission. What began informally in 2017, is the vision of three co-founding women; Allie, Bri Majsiak, and Paige More.
Each was going through their own journey surrounding cancer, but had a shared dream for ‘a group that made all young women dealing with a high risk or diagnosis feel supported.’ After formally incorporating as a nonprofit in 2018, their mission became even clearer:
The mission of The Breasties is to empower those affected by breast and reproductive cancers by igniting strength and positivity through connection, free retreats, wellness activities, events, and an all-inclusive resourceful online community. The hope is to spread the message that whatever you are going through - you are not alone.
They go on to say, 'The Breasties is unlike other organizations, as it is for everyone - survivors, previvors, warriors, thrivers, carevivors, and supporters. This organization believes in the power of community, collaboration, and inclusivity because we truly are stronger together.'
Within a year of her diagnosis, and after a grueling treatment regimen that included eight rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy with reconstruction, radiation, and an additional six months of oral chemotherapy, Allie was told by her doctor that there was no evidence of disease. She wrote about her experience and on-going journey in October of last year.
Through it all, Jess was immersed as Allie’s caregiver, which also led her down an unexpected path of self-discovery.
"In that process of being there for someone, being wrapped up in somebody else, I realized afterward that I lost myself and that's kind of scary," she shares.
“I think I showed up for Allie, and I think I did a good job of that, but I know I could have done a better job if I had focused a little on myself in order to give back.”
Giving yourself permission to be empowered is sometimes difficult, even more so when it’s you’re calling to be in service to others. Jess’s realization was that, through self-care and committing to being the best version of herself, her capacity for support could not only grow but deepen.
“As [Allie] began to navigate life after her diagnosis, I did the same. I dug deep and I realized all of the things that I wasn’t addressing. I focused on wellness - a balanced lifestyle,” Jess shared on Instagram. “I got back in the gym and was motivated by strength.”
“I realized that the life I was living was not fulfilling me, and I shifted my mindset. I created a support team to re-establish a healthy mind, body, and soul. I began building a life I could be proud of and love.”
“As I continued in my journey, I had a tremendous desire to support others.”
Jess was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a teenager, and today is a certified Holistic Health Coach and fitness instructor at the gym that was an integral part of journey to strength. She pulls from her own life experiences to focus on millennial women who ‘give their all to someone or something other than themselves.’
“I empower them to take small steps toward lasting change in different aspects of their lives, in making themselves a priority, and in making wellness attainable. In elevating themselves, they can continue to give their invaluable love and support to those around them,” she explains.
With timing that now seems perfect, Jess met her husband, Ali Muhammad, two weeks before Allie’s diagnosis in 2016. The similarity of their alliterated names also proved fitting.
“Ali is an amazing, incredible, kind human,” she shares. "He was raised by a strong black woman. A woman who was hardworking, a woman who was kind, who was just beautiful."
“In our conversations when we were first starting to get to know each other, I found out that [Ali's] mother passed away from breast cancer. I didn’t get to meet her, but I know her through his stories, through my sister-in-law’s stories, through [her] paintings, through the things that she wrote about her life.”
“So, I know her and I love her.”
The Breasties help to address an immense need for support and community among those diagnosed and affected by breast cancer. It’s a gap that has existed for generations.
“[Ali’s] mom needed community. His mom needed education, she needed to know what surgery meant, and what different options there were,” says Jess. “She needed to know that you can have someone to lean on who had been through it, who could tell her that was ok.”
All of the natural, human, and understandable fears were complicated by financial concerns and a system that wasn’t built for a Black woman with breast cancer.
“She had insurance, but she was in a job that hadn’t promoted her for years and she wasn’t sure where the co-pays were going to come from if she got treatment,” Jess shares.
“So, she didn’t tell anybody about a lump that she had in her breast.”
“Ali felt the lump when he went to give her a hug - it was that prominent - and she tried to hide it. That’s how he knew that it had been there.”
It’s hard not to imagine what could have been if circumstances were different, from an available community to a corrected system, but Jess focuses on what she can control here and now.
She shared as much with an audience of ‘Breasties’ during a recent video workout session called ‘Feel Strong, Be Strong,’ an example of how The Breasties continue to carry out their mission during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Obviously, we see the injustices that are going on - that have been going on - and it’s not right. We need to build a better community, we need to build better systems, but I can help by being here and showing up for all of you.”
Showing up is Jess’s specialty, for herself and for the community that she both supports and helps lead through her work at The Breasties.
"I'll never forget this one-moment last year at [Camp Breasties], Ali came to support us, and he looked around at all 500 women that were there walking around, talking, chatting, having fun and he said to me, ‘wow, my mom would have loved this.’”
“And that’s why I’m here.”
ACTIIVST has partnered with The Breasties on an exclusive collection and we are donating 100% of the proceeds to support their mission to empower those affected by breast and reproductive cancer.
Proceeds from every ACTIIVST purchase support cause-based and nonprofit organizations with a focus on equality, education, and physical and mental health. To learn more, click here.