It was an act of defiance and hope.  Geralyn Lucas took the tube of crimson pigment and beeswax out of her bag and applied it to her lips. Moments earlier, shivering in the fluorescent light of a hospital room, she pulled on a surgical smock and her eyes locked on the garment’s lettering: Property of Mt Sinai Hospital. It struck a nerve. “Oh no. I’m property of the hospital,” she thought.  

 

GERALYN LUCAS IN SARASOTA FOR THE HEAR ME ROAR LUNCHEON. PHOTO BY EVAN SIGMUND.

After months of feeling invisible, that the cancer had taken over and she, aside from the malignancy, didn’t exist anymore, something inside her railed against the darkness. She wanted to be seen, wanted to live and she was not going to give in without a fight. She remembered the stories of prisoners marching to their deaths, displaying a defiant gesture to mock their situation.  She chose lipstick. A bright red symbol of her determination to regain what had been lost and her lone weapon against a helpless situation. It gave her a brief sense of control. Maybe if her lipstick made it through this nightmare, she would too. “I want my lipstick to tell everyone in this room that I think I have a future and I know I will wear lipstick again but next time on my terms,” she remembers thinking. “But for now I have my war paint. I am ready.“ And when she woke up in the recovery room, her joy at the prospect of living to see another day was magnified by the triumph that the color was still there. Her lipstick had lasted and so would she. 

Prior to being diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 27, Lucas was riding a high wave of happiness and success. She developed a love for journalism as managing editor of her high school paper and pursued her passion through education at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. After graduation, she landed her dream job as an editorial producer at 20/20 developing original ideas for show segments. She would go on to work at Lifetime Networks, overseeing the critically acclaimed and award-winning biographies of stars including Beyoncé, Dame Elizabeth Taylor and former first lady Laura Bush, and then to the Public Affairs and Corporate Communications division, handling media and talent relations for award-winning campaigns including Stop Breast Cancer for Life, End Violence Against Women and Every Woman Counts. But none of that would have happened if she had not gotten the mammogram.

Newly married, Lucas had gone to her doctor to talk about getting pregnant. She pointed out a lump in her breast. When the doctor ordered a scan, she was so busy at work she almost didn’t go. And when she did, the unthinkable happened. Diagnosed with a serious form of breast cancer, the terror of the disease and the indignities involved in testing left her with little sense of personal agency. She was poked, prodded and examined by multiple doctors as she explored her options. But aside from the clinical information available, there was little for her to lean on. As she puts it, no one would talk to her about “what it meant to have one boob in a boob-obsessed universe.” So Lucas sought out unorthodox routes to help her decide whether to have a mastectomy, researching available clinical options while exploring the psychosocial aspects of what it means to lose a breast. 

She went to a strip club—a “mammary Mecca” as she calls it—to try to understand why breasts seemed to matter so much to people, and reviewed post-mastectomy reconstruction nipple tattoo options with her mother—noting their surprise at the artistry.  “It was a museum-quality nipple,” Lucas says. “It was pointillist. It was like a Monet. It had many different colors and dots and it danced and I’m just sitting here thinking, ‘I’m so glad I took an art history class.’” She made it her mission to learn as much as she could, and vowed to help others in her situation.   

She culled all of her experiences into her hilarious, and poignant memoir called Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, which was made into an Emmy-nominated Lifetime Original movie, translated and broadcast world-wide. The book was a Humanitas Prize finalist and won the Gracie Allen Outstanding Drama Award, and Lucas’ story was featured in Nora and Delia Ephron’s off-Broadway smash hit, Love, Loss and What I Wore. Dress designer and breast cancer survivor Betsey Johnson designed a T-shirt to promote the book, and the cosmetic company Stila created a lipstick called ‘Geralyn’ in her honor.

The response to the book only further bolstered Lucas’ motivation to share her knowledge and support to others through her writing and activism. “My motivation was the women who got me through my diagnosis and women I didn’t even know who called me and held out their hand and said, ‘I’m here,’” she says. “It’s the most meaningful thing in my career when a woman says, ‘Your book got me through this,’ or, ‘It made me laugh at a time when I thought there was nothing to laugh at.’”

She created a YouTube video titled “Ouch,” which encouraged  women to get mammograms instead of bikini waxes and Botox. The video went viral and became a “Webby” honoree. She took the video to ABC and showed it to her former bosses on-air. “Ouch” formed the basis for the ABC News Goes Pink campaign, which encouraged women across America to learn the facts about breast cancer and get screened. This program resulted in the diagnosis of correspondent Amy Robach after an on-air mammogram, which made headlines around the world. “It seemed crazy,” Lucas says, “but it saved a life.”

Lucas realized that other women going through the process were probably also feeling the  sense of invisibility she did, looking at dehumanizing headless reconstructive breast implant photos in the surgeon’s office. “They would show me these books of what I called ‘breast mugshots,’ because there were no faces,” she says. “It was just scary, poorly lit reconstruction photos and I wanted to put a face with the body.“ So she did a full length photoshoot with Self Magazine. When the photos were done, Lucas was worried that all she would see was the scar but the photographer encouraged her to look a little deeper, to look at her eyes, to really see herself. “It was, in the strangest way, the most beautiful picture I’d ever seen of myself,” she says, “because I saw my courage, I saw my journey, I saw something I didn’t recognize in myself.”

Almost two decades after her diagnosis, Lucas published Then Came Life: Living with Courage, Spirit, and Gratitude After Breast Cancer in which she explores living everyday life after a life-changing experience. From grumpy husbands to eye-rolling teens and the frustrations that aging brings, Lucas writes from a perspective informed by the knowledge that no matter how tiresome daily humdrum annoyances can be, they are part of a life that almost didn’t happen and she understands the precious nature of normalcy. “I’m straddling those two sides of life,” she says, a realization run home when she found herself simultaneously dealing with the minutia of getting her son into nursery school and being present for a friend suffering from cancer. “It’s a tightrope and most times I have to really convince myself to jump over to the side of life,” she says. “Maybe knowing the other side makes it a bit sweeter and puts things in perspective.”

Lucas’ experience provides her with an appreciation for everything women face on the daily and she actively encourages them to move towards growth and transformation at every stage of the journey. The latter message is something she is completely passionate about these days,  encouraging women to give themselves a break as they try to balance all the demands of their lives.

“It is all a sh*t show; no one ever has it nailed,” she says. “This whole idea of balance is so hard on women. I often feel imbalanced and I often feel that whole cliché of guilty when I’m home and I’m not at work; guilty when I’m at work and I’m not at home. Can we forgive ourselves more?” She doesn’t have the solution, she’ll admit, and in her view techonology has only made things more difficult. Her best tactic is to improvise and do the best you can as you move along.  “My mom had this trick she used,” Lucas says.” She would come home from work and just put a pot of boiling water on the stove. I’d say, ‘What are you making?’ She would say, ‘I don’t know but Dad thinks that dinner is being made.’”

Lucas doesn’t let her readers off the hook, but rather encourages them to “live up to their lipstick,” in spite of their challenges. “A lot of people say going through a serious illness makes you look deeply at who you are, and that can be true, but you don’t have to have breast cancer to do that,” she says. “Whatever that version of yourself you never thought was a possibility, just go for it and become her. Keep that in your mind’s eye to inspire yourself.”

Currently back in the journalism world, consulting for the Pulitzer Prizes, as well as a project celebrating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Lucas is continuing her activism, informing women about breast cancer and early detection, and working on several movie scripts. She lives in Manhattan with her husband and two children, passionate as ever about supporting women as they face life’s challenges—and still wearing her lipstick. “It was hard to imagine I could ever wear lipstick again,” she says. “I was scared that the other lipstick moments could not live up to my defining lipstick moment. But maybe that is what is so special now—I have gotten my life back and each moment feels lipstick-worthy.”