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All photographs courtesy of Sarrah Strimel

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Breast Cancer Alliance

Sarrah Strimel, founder of Damn Good Yoga

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Breast cancer is not a grandmother’s disease. That’s a reality we’ve learned again and again and again this quarter during our #VBGIVESBACK partnership with Breast Cancer Alliance. But what’s seldom realized? For women who are diagnosed at a young age, a whole new set of issues arise, such as infertility and the inability to carry a child. 

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“That was the biggest shock in the world to me,” says Sarrah Strimel, founder of Damn Good Yoga, who discovered she had breast cancer at 38. "The hardest part—more than [the surgeries], more than the chemo—was the loss of being able to carry my own child." For the former Broadway dancer, it was another gut punch after being dealt a succession of harsh blows: a double mastectomy, 8 rounds of chemotherapy, 28 rounds of radiation, reconstructive surgery and, just last month, an oophorectomy (the surgical removal of the ovaries) because she has a genetic mutation that increases her risk for ovarian cancer. 

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A fraction of this would be enough to break another person, but not Strimel. The New York-based yogi made herself an open book and chronicled her vulnerable journey on her Instagram @damngoodyoga, from the first days of diagnosis to her search for a surrogate and beyond. (Spoiler alert: she finds one.) The series is pure uplift and, if you ask us, required thumb-scrolling for anyone battling the disease. 

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This year, she also co-founded the nonprofit A Damn Good Life, which funds surrogacy journeys for young survivors in need, along with two friends who overcame their own bouts with breast cancer. "We fund the whole journey, from soup to nuts," explains Strimel, adding that applications open in January for the first grant recipient. "This sort of help doesn't really exist right now, so I'm really proud of what we've done. We're sort of fearless." 

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Q&A

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Tell us about your breast cancer journey... 
Breast cancer was never on my radar. We didn't have it in my family. But once I was diagnosed, I thought, OK, let's get through this and I'll get on with my life. But then I found out that my fertility and my ability to carry a child would be affected—that was the biggest shock in the world to me. I lost my breasts, I'm on my third surgery, I just had my ovaries removed—OK. The hardest part—more than all this, more than the chemo—was the loss of being able to carry my own child. This was something I had waited for my whole life and now that chance was taken away. 

For the uninitiated, what are the risks here? 
About 80% of breast cancers are hormone-receptor positive, which means the cancer feeds off your body's estrogen and progesterone. After the initial treatment, your oncologist will put you on medications for the first five years to trigger a chemical menopause for five years because that's when the recurrence rate is highest. So if you're diagnosed in your 30s—and an alarming amount of women are—by the time you're done with therapy, it's not an ideal situation. There are many intricacies and each case is personal, but long story short, a lot of women can't carry an embryo because of their diagnosis. 

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“OK, so you lost today. How are you going to win tomorrow?”

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How did you power through it?
You always have two choices—dwell in the sadness and anger or find the joy in the darkest days and walk down the road past them. Look around you; there's beauty everywhere, even when you're feeling the sh*ttiest. And that's what I did. I made a conscious decision to bring myself back to whatever moments of joy I could find. 

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Where does that come from? Because this doesn't come naturally for a lot of people who have gone through what you have...
I read an article in The New York Times that said resiliency is partially in our DNA—so I thank mom and dad for that. But I was also given a certain set of skills from life. I chose to have a career on Broadway, which is not the easiest thing. I had built up some muscle from going to auditions, getting rejected and having to pick myself back up again. OK, so you lost today. How are you going to win tomorrow?

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Did being a yogi help with the process? 
For sure. Yoga is about presence. It's not about doing everything perfect and nailing the best poses; it's about meeting yourself where you are in the moment. After my mastectomy, I would do yoga only my underwear in my house. Every day, I moved, touched and got to know a different body on the mat. Some days I couldn't move my arms; some days I was bald and puffy from chemo. Yoga means union and I was bringing myself back together, the old me and the new me. 

Tell us about your nonprofit A Damn Good Life
I saw a huge gap in assistance for surrogacy. The price tag for a surrogate is $150,000. My husband and I are lucky enough that we can afford it, but so many women can't. And while there are many amazing foundations that help with egg freezing and IVF, there's no help for surrogacy. So I got together with two of my good friends, Victoria Raphael and Ann Palmer—both young breast cancer survivors—and started A Damn Good Life, which gives grants to woman to have babies after cancer. We fund the whole journey, from soup to nuts. We hope to eventually expand to help families with financial adoption assistance and to extend beyond breast cancer survivors to all female fertility cancers—ovarian, uterine and cervical. 

The founders of A Damn Good Life, from left: Sarrah Strimel, Ann Palmer and Victoria Raphael

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From now to the end of the year, we will donate a portion of proceeds from every single veronicabeard.com order to the nonprofit Breast Cancer Alliance, which is making an impact through major investments in early-stage research, fellowships, education and support. Learn more about the partnership here#VBGIVESBACK

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