Following a whirlwind revelation surrounding her health, this PR graduate’s restlessness led her to unexpected opportunity.
The brisk January air brought snow as Kelsie Barnhart ’14 and her closest friends prepared to bookmark the coming period of uncertainty.
“I would like to do a photoshoot, a very non-sensual photoshoot, to just appreciate my body,” she said. “And to look back and know ‘you’re still living and breathing even while cancer is in you right now.’
“I just want to remember this moment because for the rest of my life I’m going to be flat on one side, and I’m choosing that.”
Now, years later, the images Barnhart captured with her crew (affectionately referred to as her “Cancer Bridesmaids”) sit on a flash drive in her house gathering dust. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever look at them, but she’s glad they’re there.
Barnhart’s cancer journey began just a few years after graduation, which she followed with a stint at a marketing firm and two years at Caterpillar Inc. In 2017 she began working at Peoria-based nonprofit Samaritan Ministries, helping coordinate the sharing of medical bills.
One night, a year later, Barnhart felt some pain in one of her breasts while getting ready for bed. “That’s probably a cyst, or something else that you experience in your 20s,” she thought at the time, but decided to set up an appointment to be sure.
“I had a normal exam where the doctor was able to feel what I had felt. We believed more than likely it was something like a cyst, but she did decide she wanted me to get imaging, which I’ve since heard is pretty unique when you’re 27.
“I later found out that doctor had been a young adult cancer survivor.”
A whirlwind of tests and tears later, Barnhart was sitting at a little table with her parents when she learned she had cancer. “I remember turning to my mom, and I didn’t want to make eye contact with her because I knew that she was going to be just as sad about the news as I was, but I turned to her, kind of this out-of-body experience, and I said, ‘I didn’t think this would be my life.’”
Disjointed thoughts and difficult decisions came next. Should she go with the single mastectomy per her doctor’s recommendation, or should she have both breasts removed, which would reduce her fears of recurrence? Neither answer was appealing.
“I was really wrestling with the idea that my body was going to look different for the rest of my life and I was choosing that,” Barnhart said. “But at the same time, when you’re taking the advice of the doctor, it can also feel repetitive. You’re just having to do kind of what they’re telling you to do to survive.
“And with breast cancer, it’s incredibly wrapped up with your identity and your sexuality and how you see yourself each day. So, I knew I wanted to do something to kind of commemorate the moment and remember myself for how I was.”
In preparation for the photoshoot, Barnhart faced another issue she never imagined for herself — what bras could she wear? She was experiencing daily pain from the cancer and wanted something comfortable, pretty and functional.
“I think growing up as a teenage girl, you’re constantly comparing yourself to the images you see,” Barnhart said. “It’s not just a matter of fitting a certain mold of what beauty looks like, because we’re all human, and human is beautiful.”
“I think growing up as a teenage girl, you’re constantly comparing yourself to the images you see. It’s not a just a matter of fitting a certain mold of what beauty looks like, because we’re all human, and human is beautiful.”
That day, Barnhart purchased four underwire-free Aerie-brand bras. Just 60 days after her diagnosis, she underwent a single mastectomy and received a prosthetic breast form. However, she then found herself in a familiar predicament — what bra would she wear with her prosthetic? Barnhart found few products available for women in her age group who chose not to undergo reconstruction, especially those who choose a single mastectomy.
“The products I found were not geared toward people who were 27. All of the ads were women in their 50s and 60s … and that created a sense of loss and sadness in and of itself. Like, ‘Where can I go to find things that still make me feel strong and beautiful and confident?’”
Luckily, her Aerie bras were a success with her prosthetic, too, even though it wasn’t a mastectomy bra. Barnhart was thrilled at the prospect of wearing something marketed to her demographic.
“That helped me feel like I was still part of the bigger community of the world and not super isolated into this niche group of young breast cancer patients,” she said, noting less than 1% of breast cancer diagnoses are people in their 20s and 30s. “It’s like, ‘No, I’m still part of this bigger community of young adults as a whole.’”
But the more Barnhart healed, the more she felt restless. “I immediately started to turn the gears in my mind to, ‘How can this experience be worth something? How can this be used for something?’ Because suffering for suffering’s sake is incredibly demoralizing and disappointing, but suffering unto something bigger and better than yourself can be incredibly uplifting.
Barnhart wondered if she could write about her experience as a young breast cancer survivor. “Aerie was always kind of in the back of my head, but I always thought it was out of reach until it wasn’t.”
While poring over the company’s blog, Barnhart discovered an open call for their AerieREAL Voices campaign. The deadline for submissions was in just a few days. After throwing things together at a breakneck pace, Barnhart produced a simple 60-second video from her spare bedroom in the hopes of standing out.
“I just explained to them, ‘I think you guys have the opportunity to show a very small sector of the population that they are seen and they’re not the only ones.’ It would’ve made all the difference for me if I had seen a fellow person in their 20s using an Aerie product with a prosthetic, and I wanted to be able to be that person for them.”
Two months later, Barnhart was one of 25 women chosen for an in-house photoshoot and interview at the company’s headquarters in Pittsburgh, joined by one of her Cancer Bridesmaids.
“I had done a few photo shoots before, but this one was all video and then they take stills from that video for the actual pictures. So, I didn’t know that going in, and all of a sudden, I’m being told to ‘Be fluid and show off the product and smile more.’ It was intimidating.”
Leaning into the support from her friend and the other models, Barnhart took herself aside for a quick internal pep-talk.
“I had a moment, and I just said to myself, ‘You’re getting to do something that you wanted to do for so long. And no matter how it goes, at the end of the day, the goal is going to get accomplished. Somebody is going to see a breast cancer survivor in an ad in a store. And that’s the goal: representation.’”
“I know in a lot of ways I still fit what you do see in a lot of models. I’m white, I’m thin, I’m educated … but the way that I don’t fit it is the way that I wanted to show. And being there with the other women who were different ethnicities, have different body types and had scars of their own, each of them, that is what I think we need to see.”
This July, the intimate apparel manufacturer featured Barnhart in online video ads for its new Smoothez by AerieTM product line, an anti-shapewear offshoot of intimates. Rolling out in August, she was also proud to appear in the AerieREAL Voices campaign.
Since finishing chemotherapy and radiation, Barnhart has no evidence of cancer, but the lessons of her experience continue to roll in
“Each day is an opportunity to, while it sounds cliché, be honest with yourself about the pain, the suffering that you’re experiencing while also giving yourself permission to appreciate the joy that’s happening at the same time,” she said. “And that’s part of why I went to Bradley games during treatment or why I fought so hard to find opportunities to write for organizations or to travel to Pittsburgh to be in this campaign.
“Because I’m still grasping for those moments of joy.”