Vera Trifunovich (MA ’96) is the founder and executive director of Bare Breasted Against Breast Cancer, a website that helps breast cancer survivors heal each other by sharing their stories and creativity. Vera has worked as a drama therapist at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and is currently a wellness coach and breast cancer recovery specialist in private practice. She earned a BFA in drama from NYU Tisch School of the Arts in 1986 and an MA in drama therapy from NYU Steinhardt in 1996.
We spoke to Vera about how her own cancer journey inspired her to create a not-for-profit organization dedicated to supporting breast cancer survivors.
Why did you create Bare Breasted Against Breast Cancer?
In July 2016, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive nodular breast cancer with metastasis to the sentinel lymph node. I consider myself lucky because I went through my treatment supported by a large group of loving, knowledgeable women, including several breast cancer survivors. Those women shared their stories, and through that process, I found the hope and courage I needed to face my treatment.
I was acutely aware that I was very fortunate because so many other women do not have the same — or any — support system. (I lost my own mother to inflammatory breast cancer in 1991, and remembered all too well how frightened and isolated my Mom and our family felt.)
Immediately after my surgery I felt inspired to do something creative with my breast cancer experience. I decided to chronicle my recovery through a series of photographs and personal essays that I shared with my friends and family. My friends and family then shared my work with other women who were facing the disease, and I found myself to be a part of the breast cancer community.
I created Bare Breasted for women who may not have a supportive network, or who simply find that hearing about other women’s experiences is helpful and inspiring. My dream is to give viewers honest, insightful, and informative stories to lessen the fear and loneliness that can often accompany a breast cancer diagnosis.
Why is storytelling important to cancer survivors? Why do you think cancer survivors need to tell their stories?
At Bare Breasted Against Breast Cancer we believe in the intrinsic value and power of the art of storytelling. We believe that by sharing our stories and our creativity, we can help and heal each other.
Storytelling serves us in many ways. For many people (like myself) articulating my story (both in writing and on film) was both cathartic and empowering. It helped me gain insight into the complex emotions and impulses that come with cancer, while allowing me to gain a sense of mastery over the experience.
Cancer had forced me to face my mortality; telling the story of how I eluded the grim reaper (at least for now!) and how I made it through the “ick” of chemo, helped me feel less powerless and in more control of my situation. Additionally, I found that hearing the survival stories — the war stories — of other women who had faced breast cancer, helped me stay strong and positive during my journey. I found it comforting to hear other women speak about their cancer, to hear their advice, and simply to be in their living presence.
Tell me about your NYU education.
At NYU Steinhardt I had the opportunity to meet and learn from many excellent professors. As students in the drama therapy masters program, we were required to complete multiple field placements and internships to gain clinical experience. During this process we were mentored by professionals working in the field, most of whom were graduates of the program!
In the drama therapy program, I discovered that the process of creating art, and most significantly, sharing that process with another, was profoundly enlightening and healing. My education also taught me that creative self-expression can be an anchor in times of chaos.
Though many years have passed, I have maintained contact with several of my classmates and mentors. When I was a student, Dr. Cecilia Dintino, taught us the importance of community and authentic storytelling and listening. She was (and is!) an incredible group leader who knows how to seamlessly create an atmosphere that is honest and supportive.
While I was recovering from breast cancer and envisioning my mission of sisterhood and support, I invited Dr. Dintino to facilitate a group for women to freely share their stories of coping with serious illness as patient and as caregivers.
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