When breast cancer survivor Ronda Brooks Stanoikovich’s blonde hair started to grow back in tiny tufts after months of surgeries and unrelenting chemotherapy, she posted a photo of herself on Facebook. She proudly wrote: “Yep, that’s a bobby pin in my hair.” At the same time, she reasoned there would be most certainly ponytails in her future.
A sassy sense of humor, enduring faith and a wicked love of stilettos have been the unlikely trio of superpowers Ronda quickly summoned when she was diagnosed with HER2 Positive breast cancer on Aug. 1, 2014. Understandably a self-described mess when she learned of the cancer just days before a family vacation, the mother of two was nonetheless determined to reinvent her life and, at the same time, put a sexy new twist on the traditional concept of beauty amidst a disfiguring disease.
With true grit and a positive stance, the 36-year-old boxing aficionado adopted this motto: Kicking cancer’s ass in high heels. After all, in March 2014 she was in the boxing ring as a competitor in the Knockout Dayton fundraiser. Now she was fighting for her life with equal precision, and she vowed to attend every medical appointment wearing high heels.
After the summer RV road trip last year, Ronda called Blush Boudoir to schedule an appointment for a boudoir photography session. Knowing she would lose the long locks of hair she had so cherished as well as her left breast, Ronda was anxious to create a story board of not only her signature style but also her sundry emotions along a medical journey that would prove to be particularly arduous.
Ronda says she had already been thinking about a boudoir photography session even before the cancer news. “I’ve always been a girly girl,” says Ronda, who has lived in Butler Twp. for the past 11 years. “That’s always who I’ve been.”
“Tracy rearranged her schedule and got me into the studio right away,” she says. The photo shoot — organized well before the cancer affected Ronda’s pretty, girl-next-door appearance — lifted her spirits. “Tracy, Monica and Hannah made me feel so comfortable and so beautiful … like an absolute movie star. I guess I just can’t thank Tracy and the Blush team enough for shining such a beautiful light on me and making me feel so absolutely beautiful in a way I never dreamed possible.” (story continued below…)
Ronda says she referred often to her Blush photos in the rugged months of chemo and operations that followed. “When I was down in the dumps and I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror, I would look at my Blush book. I realized beauty comes from within.”
During the course of Ronda’s medical treatment, she did lose all her hair, gained weight and wrestled with the waves of pain, nausea and fatigue that ensued. “Losing my hair was such a big deal; it sounds so vain but when I was going through chemo, I felt like I was pregnant, hungover and sick all at the same time. It was really tough,” she recalls, “But I was kicking cancer’s ass in high heels. I would wear smaller heels on the days I felt terrible because there were times when I avoided mirrors and didn’t go out at all. Some days, I had to talk myself to get out of bed.”
Midway through her cancer journey and two days before her mastectomy, Ronda posed for a second photo session with Blush. “I was on the fence about it at first. I was bald; I had gained weight. But when I saw the photos afterward, I bawled like a baby. My eyes spoke volumes. I could see the pain and struggle, but I could also see the determination. I was so blessed to have these pictures.”
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True to her down-to-earth yet remarkably witty manner, Ronda amped up her beauty routine by purchasing wigs and reflecting on the sunnier side of baldness. “First of all, there’s no more shaving or waxing. You don’t only lose the hair on your head, but everywhere else. This makes for super-quick showers and extra-smooth legs. Hello, bonus!”
Ronda credits Erika Hicks at Becca’s 3700 Hair Studio in Kettering for being “amazing, and she helped me in so many different ways and made this wig-choosing process fun instead of painful.” Ronda named her first wig “Miss America.” The other four hair pieces were called Drew, Ronda, Tinkerbell and Victoria Beckham. “I have been known to go from a short wig during the day to a long wig at night. You can’t do that with your normal hair,” she adds with a smile.
After six months of chemotherapy administered through a port above her left breast to reduce the three masses, Ronda’s surgeons performed a double mastectomy in March at Good Samaritan Hospital. “I told the doctors: They came as a pair, so you might as well build me a pair,” Ronda said of her decision to have both breasts removed. She went into surgery wearing Bad-Ass high heels that the medical team removed during the procedure and placed back on her feet when she returned to the recovery room.
Now separated from her husband, Ronda says her sons, Logan, 11, and Cody, 7, were — and continue to be — her biggest supporters. Even though they didn’t initially know the severity of their mother’s illness, they certainly sensed when Ronda needed an extra smattering of love. “They have been amazing,” says Ronda. “They have been troopers. On days I was really sick from the chemotherapy, my older son would simply say, ‘Mom, go to bed.’ They never really expressed fear.”
Her sister Rachelle and a blessedly wide circle of friends, nurses, doctors and fellow cancer survivors have been tremendous cheerleaders as well, especially when Ronda’s mother died in April after a long series of illnesses. “She died in my arms,” says Ronda. “I did her hair, nails, makeup and gave her a full massage that day. I would not take back that time for anything.”
And best friend and fellow yogi Jenny Smith was instrumental in setting up an account for Ronda on CareZone, a private online service that allows patients and caregivers to share information such as medications, appointments, photos, to-do lists, contacts and calendars. Just as important, CareZone permitted Ronda to keep an online journal — heart-wrenching at times — so friends and family could follow the latest news about her health.
“What do you say about someone who just steps up, not asking for any credit, not waiting for directions or for me to ask?” says Ronda. “Jenny just always seemed to know what I needed, I was never very good with asking for help. She would just show up like my night in shining armor, like she had a six sense as to when I was down, ill, depressed or needed to laugh and ,boy, did we laugh.”
“We made the best of everything: the good, the bad and the really ugly,” she adds. “It’s easy to stay positive when you have the world’s best cheerleaders by your side. But in all honesty, Jenny was my rock, my saving grace. I will never be able to repay her for her generosity and love.”
After Ronda’s breast reconstruction in June, she took her sons to Cocoa Beach, Fla., for a much-needed getaway. “The ocean was really rough that evening with waves crashing in, the sound amazing, and I admired my boys playing on the beach,” says Ronda. “But the next morning, the ocean was so incredibly calm, peaceful, and endless and I thought to myself, this is the ocean I want to get in. Still in constant motion, but a nice gentle flow. Realizing the ocean is much like life some days crashing in and full of chaos, some days slow, steady and peaceful.”
Using that newfound serenity, Ronda wants to help other women dealing with the grueling phases of cancer by offering weekend retreats. As a newly certified yoga instructor through Day Yoga in Vandalia, Ronda says meditation and healthy eating will be part of the retreats.
“The more positive you put out to the universe, the more positive that comes back to you.”
Beauty Tips for Cancer Patients
Ronda Brooks Stanoikovich says one of the hardest parts of the breast cancer ordeal is getting used to looking at yourself in the mirror. Everything changes: your complexion, your hair, your nails, your eyelashes and eyebrows. She offers these tips to fight the beauty battle:
- Apply Fake Bake self tanner if you need a pick-me-up and a little color.
- Try Amoena self-adhesive nipples while waiting to get your new nipples. “They come in different sizes and color and just make you feel better about yourself.”
- Take biotin vitamins everyday to strengthen your nails and help your hair grow back, says Ronda. (Be sure to check with your doctor before changing your vitamin regimen.)
- Style your wig the night before, Ronda suggests, then throw it on the next day and go.
- Be sure to eat healthy and exercise, even if you feel downright crummy. Ronda attributes boxing and yoga to keeping her centered.
- Maintain a positive attitude. “Do whatever makes you feel good,” says Ronda. “Put on your high heels, put on your lipstick, use whatever works for you as your superpower. Believe that you’re going to get through this.”
This is part one of a two-part series written by Suzette DeSart. Part two features another inspirational Blush Boudoir client who has fought her own battle with cancer – stay tuned!