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The Girlz: Forging friendship through living with cancer

From left to right, The Girlz in various wedding dresses, expressions jubilant: Kisha Morgan (seated); Paige Heath, consultant Tiffanys Bridal & cancer survivor (standing); Tonya Campbell (middle seated); Vanessa Spurlock (standing short hair); & Shannon Beasley (seated blonde)
Rachael Mattio Photography
Bonded by their experiences with cancer, these women found much more than friendship.

“I wanted to hear from people like me. What comes after your surgery? Your diagnosis? … What’s next?”

Vanessa Spurlock was diagnosed with breast cancer on Sept. 25, 2017. She wasn’t expecting the diagnosis or the friendships that followed.

The school year had just begun for the Hanover County Schools employee. Earlier that month she had gone for a regular breast exam. The doctor called her with the news she was not expecting. They had found a tumor.

“I felt like I was the healthiest in my lifetime,” Spurlock said. “I was working part-time at the Y. I was walking, and doing 8 miles and actually running around the track.”

Spurlock quickly received treatment. She underwent a lumpectomy the next month, which was followed by 20 rounds of chemotherapy.

To help her through the treatments she sought support from family, her church and a group for cancer patients called Here for the Girls.

“I wanted to hear from people like me. What comes after your surgery? Your diagnosis?” Spurlock said. “Like, what’s next?”

Spurlock met another cancer survivor, Shannon Beasley, through the support group. Together the women became co-facilitators — and then friends.

“In the whole realm of being in that support group, I found family,” Spurlock said.

Two other cancer survivors, Kisha Morgan and Tonya Campbell, also became part of this close-knit clan who started to build bonds beyond their cancer diagnoses.

“We met because of cancer, but we don’t circle our whole life around what this is,” Spurlock said. “Each year, we tried to do something just to celebrate us.”

 Tonya Campbell (blue dress) hugs Tiffanys Bridal owner Sharon Townsend
VPM News Focal Point
Tonya Campbell hugs Sharon Townsend, the owner of Tiffanys Bridal, during The Girlz's outing.

Spurlock, who is often the one concocting their annual adventures, came up with a plan.

“I was, like, ‘what can we do this year that’s different than something we’ve ever done?’” Spurlock recounted. “So, I called and I started off with ‘Hi, my name is Vanessa, and I have a crazy question for you.’”

Becki Wines, an assistant manager at Tiffanys Bridal in Richmond, answered the call.

“The sweet voice on the phone said she wanted to know if we could let her borrow some dresses,” Wines said. “She explained a little bit about what she wanted to do — that they just wanted to celebrate. They were cancer survivors and just wanted to kind of glam up and dress up and just celebrate life.”

Wines agreed to let the women try on dresses but decided to go a step further.

“I said, ‘What would you think if we kind of took this up a notch?’” Wines said. “Rather than just doing a day where you come and get dressed up and take some pictures yourself, what if we get a photographer to come in and actually do a photo shoot?”

The group of friends, who call themselves The Girlz, were thrilled at the idea and made plans to meet at the dress shop.

“We had probably about five or six dresses for each lady,” Wines said. “So, when they came in, they could try those on, and they could find that one that made them feel beautiful.”

“It was like we were 16-year-old girls just in somebody’s closet,” Spurlock said. “And you get to pick whatever dress you wanted to put on.”

The cancer survivors explained that after their diagnoses, they’d struggled to adjust with all of the life changes.

Vanessa Spurlock seated in a floor-length gown wearing a "cancer survivor" sash on top. She's also got a tiara and teardrop necklace.
VPM News Focal Point
Vanessa Spurlock

“With a breast cancer diagnosis, your mental change, your emotional change, your physical change, and we get to see that every day,” Spurlock said. “But when we came in here, it didn’t matter if we thought our bodies may have had whatever imperfection, whatever scar, whatever flaw. All of it was just absolutely beautiful.”

The consultants at Tiffanys Bridal were accustomed to fitting women of all ages and shapes, so they were confident they could find dresses that would make the women feel confident and beautiful.

“Vanessa had mentioned, ‘You know, our bodies don’t look the same, but we’re still the same people,’” Wines said. “And I just wanted to give them a time where they could feel like that person that they felt like they are in the inside.”

“It was kind of a healing process,” Beasley said. “Really being here and feeling beautiful. And seeing the dresses, and being with other women, and seeing how they looked just as beautiful is very empowering.”

Tiffanys Bridal says a post about The Girlz, their story of survival, and their photo shoot has garnered a great deal of attention.

“We’ve had some women who have come in who are also cancer survivors,” Wines said. “We’ve been able to talk with them about that.”

The Girlz are starting to plan their next get-together.

“Survivor means to me that ‘yes, there is no longer a tumor that exists, but that I’ve survived more than just a tumor,’ Spurlock said. “I think that being a survivor gives you a whole new life. We have so many young people now that are like, you know, they’re like ‘Living to die.’ as a survivor, ‘No, we’re dying to live.’”

Watch VPM News Focal Point, Thursdays at 8 p.m., on VPM PBS or on the PBS App.

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