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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

November 19, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Life & Culture

Lymphoma survivor spreads cancer awareness through fashion show

Two weeks before her senior year in high school, sophomore Rachael Murray noticed her breathing getting worse and worse. Murray’s mother, Michele, thought she had developed exercised-induced asthma from her eight-year diving career. Michele took her to Samaritan Hospital in Troy, New York.

Results for asthma, cat scratch disease and pneumonia came back negative. Murray and her mother still wanted answers. The doctors suggested a CT scan. One hour later they moved them into an emergency room, requested transfer to Albany Medical Hospital in Albany, New York, and told them Murray had developed a malignant mass — cancer — on her lung. Ten days and 23 biopsies later, Murray had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph tissue. After four months of chemotherapy, she started radiation therapy to rid her of her cancer completely.

Murray has now been cancer-free for more than a year, after she dealt with the lymphoma for most of her senior year. Murray has used her experience to foster an educational, and fashionable, way of telling others about cancer awareness.

In 2013, Murray created an annual fashion show that has since raised $25,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Upstate New York/Vermont. The 2014 show featured 17 models, which included cancer survivors, caretakers, friends and family members. By using #trending4fashion as the name of her fundraiser, Murray used online platforms to successfully launch her show.

Prior to the show’s launch, Murray was nominated as the Girl of the Year by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Upstate New York/Vermont. As a nominee, she was required to attend multiple interviews and other related events. She wanted to separate herself from the crowd, so Murray and her mom went to Some Girls boutique in Troy to get outfits. However, Murray was struggling: With her radiation sessions only a month before, Murray said this was the most difficult time of her recovery process.

“The harder months came when I was done with treatment because my body needed to do what it needed to do to get back to normal,” Murray said. “It’s also when I was dealing with the emotional side of myself, since now I had time to process what I had gone through.”

Murray noticed her physical appearance also affected her emotions.

“I wore a wig in August and up until May,” Murray said. “I was very self-conscious of myself. The steroids made me gain a lot of weight, which made me puffy.”

However, as Murray tried on multiple dresses, her somber mood completely changed. Her mom said she noticed Murray’s smile and expression of confidence, which had been rare in the recent months. After Murray’s mother bought multiple dresses, Margaret Partyka, owner of Some Girls boutique, asked why they were purchasing so many clothes. Murray told Partyka her story, and Partyka broke down in tears. She wanted to help in any way possible.

“I’ve never met someone who shared so much of her vulnerability,” Partyka said. “It was a heart-opening experience to see what people have to go through, the strength they have to use and the stories they share.”

After Murray befriended Partyka, she became inspired to do something with fashion and her condition. Thoughts of her own fashion show began. Like Some Girls boutique, Murray wanted people to feel confident about their appearance, particularly cancer survivors. She also wanted to educate audience members about the true definition of cancer. In a matter of days, Murray put together a committee to make her idea become a reality.

Kelsey Beattie, Murray’s best friend, served on Murray’s fashion show committee last year. She said she sees Murray as someone who finds balance between work and play.

“She’s the puppy-dog type,” Beattie said. “She can be cute and cuddling and loving and caring. But when it comes to getting down to business, she can turn that off and get things done.”

When Murray told Beattie she was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, Beattie was shocked. But her shock soon turned into hope. Recently, Beattie’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. Beattie experienced fighting cancer with Murray, so she believes in fighting cancer with her mother.

“Rachael always says cancer is just a word,” Beattie said. “You’re not the cancer — you just have to beat it. We’ve got this, because Rachael did it.”

Murray’s fashion show was covered in a press release from Ithaca College in September 2014. Women’s World Magazine picked up the story and published “Now I Realize What a Gift Life is!” in its Dec. 15 issue, which focused on Murray’s struggle. The article covered her broad range of experiences before, during and after her cancer.

“They wanted to know more about my journey of being sick,” Murray said. “It touched on the emotional side of being sick: family, friends, how I felt. And they also touched on the Girl of the Year and the fashion show.”

Murray said she would not take back having cancer. She said she believes it’s the definition of her character.

“I want to keep pursuing things I enjoy and believe in. I want to be successful. With being diagnosed, I have the kind of personality that every day is short and live your life to the fullest.”

Luke Harbur can be reached at lharbur@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @lharbur