How Confidence Lessons from the Runway Are Helping Cancer Patients

cancer survivor at fashion show on runway

Courtesy of You Night

Key Takeaways

  • Lisa McKenzie's innovative idea to help women with cancer regain their self-confidence has earned her a prestigious award.
  • Individuals undergoing cancer treatments can experience emotional challenges, including shame over their changed appearance.
  • All cancer patients need support beyond medical therapy.

After witnessing the emotional impact of cancer treatments on her mom and two close friends, Lisa McKenzie knew she had to do something to help women with cancer.

“My mom had breast cancer my senior year of college,” McKenzie tells Verywell. “I was angry, but she was so matter-of-fact, even laughing about it. I was sitting there as a young daughter, thinking, How could she be making fun of this? She handled it swimmingly.”

McKenzie's two friends, on the other hand, had a much different reaction to their cancer journeys. “They looked different, they acted differently, and they were withdrawn," McKenzie says. "I watched them go from movers and shakers in the community to completely different versions of themselves. They were scarred and beaten up by the surgeries and treatments. I just wanted to do something to help them find their joy, inner sparkle, and peace again.”

As she watched her friends navigate the emotional complexities of a cancer diagnosis, McKenzie came across a magazine story about runway model training. The article touted that runway training taught confidence and camaraderie—two things that McKenzie felt would also be beneficial to cancer patients.

“I thought, You know who should be on that stage? Women who are battling cancer!” says McKenzie—and an idea was born. Since 2013, she's been using her background in event planning to host runway shows for women with cancer.

How Cancer Care Falls Short

As McKenzie noticed, many cancer support resources do not adequately address the emotional needs of cancer patients outside of their physician’s offices and treatment centers.

“Traditionally, the after-treatment for cancer has been approached as a medical concept, and that’s where we’ve gone wrong,” Alene Nitzky, PhD, RN, OCN, an oncology nurse, and author of the book Navigating the C: A Nurse Charts the Course for Cancer Survivorship Care, tells Verywell. “It needs to be done in the community because that’s where we want people to be. We want them to go back and live their lives, not as a patient. You can not address that in a clinical setting.”

The Emotional Needs of Cancer Patients and Survivors

“Whenever somebody goes through cancer treatment, especially if they have surgery, it impacts how they feel about their body,” Nitzky says.

A person's physical and emotional journey with cancer is influenced by the type of cancer that they have, and what treatment is necessary. “They might have scars or reduced function because of nerve damage," Nitzky says. "If they’ve had breast cancer, the appearance of the breast is going to be different."

The change in appearance is not always limited to when a patient looks in the mirror—for some, the changes are noticeable to others. "Someone who had colon cancer and now has a colostomy may worry about how it impacts other people’s perception of them or their partner’s interest in them sexually," Nitzky says. Additionally, chemotherapy drugs can impact cognitive function.

How the Runway Shows Began

McKenzie contacted a runway coach in the New Orleans, Louisiana, area, where she is located. The coach offered to gift a seven-week training class to 12 women with cancer. At a 2013 local National Cancer Day event, McKenzie found 25 cancer patients who expressed interest in joining the program—and her volunteer coach agreed to train all 25.

Lisa McKenzie

They are around like-minded women who understand that their symptoms are ongoing, and they don’t have to apologize for it.

— Lisa McKenzie

On event night, McKenzie’s mom was the first woman to step out on stage.

“I watched their confidence and the camaraderie grow," McKenzie says. "Many of them felt like I don’t have hair, I don’t have eyelashes, I don’t feel like I should be here, but I’m beginning to believe I do belong."

runway show

Courtesy of You Night

What was even more healing to many of these patients was connecting with others who understood them. “This is not just a runway show," McKenzie says. "It is a support system for them. They are around like-minded women who understand that their symptoms are ongoing, and they don’t have to apologize for it."

After the success of her initial event, McKenzie founded You Night Empowering Events, an organization that holds events aimed at empowering women who have had or are undergoing cancer treatments.

Since the inaugural You Night Runway Program, 500 more women have had the You Night Runway experience. The women are now being mentored for six months by previous participants, who felt compelled to help others benefit from what they had received. That's why McKenzie calls the events a "pay-it-forward program."

The Pandemic Necessitated Change—For the Better

By 2020, the number of You Night Runway Program participants had doubled to 50. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced McKenzie and her team to adapt many of their operations, including the Runway Night.

“We already had reserved the event facility, and we had a beautiful set designed,” McKenzie says. "Our participants were starting to get sad because their runway experience was going to be affected.” 

Instead of canceling the event, they decided to live-stream it. As restrictions lifted, they were able to train and practice safely with masks and other precautions. The live event had an attendance of 7,600—much higher than they would have had for an in-person occasion.

Sharing Stories, Empowering Others

The 2020 You Night Runway event also introduced Story Crafting, a way for the women to talk about themselves and reclaim their identities outside of their cancer diagnosis.

“We asked them about their stories outside of their cancer diagnosis, who they were, and what gave them the strength to get through their experiences,” McKenzie says. “They got to know each other on a deeper level, deeper than their disease. I love finding these stories that you would never get to learn during rehearsal.”

Not only do the women benefit themselves and each other by sharing, but they also touch the hearts of others who hear their stories.

“When they share on social media and they get hundreds of replies, they get that added confidence boost of knowing that they can inspire others,” McKenzie says. “Many interviews with cancer patients focus on the disease. They are sad and depressing. But when you start pulling out the glamour and the hope, you give them their power back by recrafting the dialogue.”

For her efforts, McKenzie received the prestigious C3 (Changing Cancer Care) Innovation Prize from Astellas Oncology.

What is the C3 Prize?

The C3 (Changing Cancer Care) Prize is awarded by Astellas Oncology, a leader in groundbreaking treatments for difficult-to-treat cancers.

Astellas Oncology identified that many cancer patients need practical help with day-to-day struggles during their cancer treatment. They sought to highlight innovators who had developed unique and transformative ways to ease the burdens experienced by people with cancer.

Since 2016, Astellas has awarded $700,000 in grants and resources to those who seek to improve the lives of cancer patients.

The Future of You Night

Until now, You Night has only been able to serve individuals in the New Orleans area, but with the funds they received from the C3 Prize, the organization will be able to expand its Story Crafting narrative therapy program. The program brings together small groups of women impacted by cancer to share their stories, with emphasis on emotional healing after treatment.

“It’s such an honor to be the recipient of this award,” McKenzie says. “We self-funded the Story Crafting idea, but now we get to turn that into a business model.”

You Night is currently working with 54 women in the New Orleans area to develop a digital e-course to reach patients all around the country. The national launch is scheduled for later this year.

Was this page helpful?