I was a young designer working for Anne Klein when I first encountered cancer. I worked side-by-side with Anne every day and when she learned she was sick it was mentioned and then never discussed again until she was very close to losing her battle. I remember how shocking it was that she was so ill. Back then no one discussed cancer. It was a four-letter word just like AIDS once was. Because her illness went unspoken, no one was prepared for her death and while Anne was dealing with her diagnosis, I became pregnant. I had made the decision to be a stay-at-home mother, but my plans were short-lived. The same week that Anne died my daughter, Gabby, was born. Death came into my life just as I was giving birth.
The same can be said about my mother’s battle with cancer. We all knew that she wasn’t feeling well, but when she went to the doctor she learned that she was in the last stages of cancer. I found myself struggling with this unbearable loss and having the company to care for. The day my mother passed away was the same day I had a fashion show. It’s not quite like giving birth to my daughter, but it was certainly something I had labored over for months and was a part of myself. Again, life and death came together.
Liz Tilberis was the editor of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, an inspiration to the fashion world and my close friend. When she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1993, Liz spent the remainder of her life creating awareness for her disease, eventually becoming the president of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Together, Liz and I created Super Saturday, an annual event in New York City where the fashion community comes together to raise money and awareness about this cancer.
And when my husband, Stephan, lost his battle to lung cancer, I knew that birth would come again. This time, it was his illness and the battle he fought that planted the seed. I remember being so grateful to the doctors and nurses who cared for him. But it was clear that the illness was getting all the attention and not my husband. I saw his disease being treated, but not his well-being nor his family’s. Having been on my own spiritual path for many years, I brought in practitioners to care for Stephan. Yoga, massage, aromatherapy, healthy, nutritious food and herbs became a part of his care.
It’s been more than seven years since Stephan passed away. My dearest friend, Lynn Kohlman, has battled breast cancer and brain cancer for more than five years after being told she only had four months to live. We’ve held each other’s hand from one surgery to the next. Just a couple of months ago, Lynn was hospitalized for another tumor. I quickly recognized that hospitals still have not evolved in their care for the patient. Again, I saw her disease was being cared for, but not Lynn or her family. Sadly, very little advancement had been made since Stephan’s hospitalization.
Out of Stephan’s illness came my dedication to bring integrated therapies to Western medicine. My foundation, Urban Zen, has embraced the yoga community to create a program to teach yoga instructors a curriculum of yoga therapy, massage therapy, aromatherapy, nutrition, and death and dying education. We’ve launched a pilot program at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City and funded a study to show the benefit of integrative therapies to cancer patients in helping them handle issues like pain, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, and constipation. But patients are not the only people dealing with cancer. Family members, loved ones, and caregivers will receive these therapies as well. I’ve dedicated the foundation’s efforts to creating awareness about these vital complementary therapies in the hope of inspiring change in the Western medical paradigm. I hope to show the medical community that integrative therapy can ease the physical and emotional pain of cancer.
Donna Karan, is a notable fashion designer and co-founder of the Urban Zen Foundation, an endeavor seeking to advance well-being, preserve cultures and empower children. After the tragic loss of her husband Stephan Weiss seven years ago to cancer, Karan realized there was something missing when it came to the treatment of her husband’s cancer, she noted a paucity of Eastern based treatments. After her husband’s passing, Karan was determined to help create awareness and inspire change in well-being to include integrative medicine, one that balanced both science of the West with the ancient healing powers of the East. The Urban Zen Foundation was born. Subsequent to the well-being initiative, preserving cultures and empowering children followed, forming the three pillars of the Urban Zen Foundation.
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