Courtney Lercara, 53, tries her best to avoid mirrors. In 1996, when she was just 33 years old, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, and radiation, she thought she was in the clear. But at the age of 35, she was re-diagnosed. She was blindsided. She had no family history of cancer, but she discovered she had the BRCA-2 gene, which increases a woman's risk for both breast and ovarian cancer. Thankfully, this October she'll celebrate 20 years as a survivor, but her body still bears the scars of her experience. She had over 20 surgeries, including a double mastectomy, because of her cancer. And it's left her with low body confidence.
"It's very, very difficult for me to be without clothes on," Lercara tells SELF. "I moved into a house in California where I have mirrors everywhere, and I don't look in mirrors. I don't like to look at myself without clothes on, and I miss my breasts. You don't realize how great they were until you lose them."
Lercara—a single mom of four—has dedicated her life's work to helping other cancer survivors and raising awareness. She's completed 14 breast cancer walks at 60 miles each, and sells breast cancer pins on her website, Pink Wings. She also works with the Young Survivor Coalition (YSC), a group which offers support to young women facing breast cancer. And it's through the YSC Facebook page that she heard about an opportunity to participate in a show called Skin Wars.
"I saw a post on Facebook saying that Skin Wars was looking for girls who were breast cancer survivors and who had been diagnosed at a young age," Lercara says. "I didn't know what Skin Wars was, I had never heard of it, but I do get out as much as I can and talk to people about being a young survivor."
Skin Wars is a Project Runway-style show on the Game Show Network, where 10 body painters compete against each other in different body-painting challenges for a cash prize. Lercara said she'd be willing to participate. As she exchanged emails with the show, however, she soon realized what she'd signed up for: The show wanted contestants to bodypaint cancer survivors from head to toe.
"I started finding out that, 'Oh wow, we're like on national TV basically completely nude except for little nude underwear and pasties,'" she says. "And I'm like, I don't know. Maybe I don't want to do it. Bodypainting was on my list of things to do before I die, but not like this. Not on a TV show. But I decided to go way, way out of my comfort zone."
The show selected Lercara to participate, and she was shocked. Even while driving to the studio for filming, she felt hesitant. She says she doesn't look at herself naked—let alone a room full of people and a national audience. But she kept pushing herself to do it.
"I just kept talking myself into it," she said. "Every step of the way, even driving to the lot that morning and I'm thinking, 'Wow, am I really going to do it?'"
Lercara was joined by four other young breast cancer survivors for the episode, and she was paired with bodypainter Alison Kenyon. There were two challenges: first, represent the survivor's story in a bodypainting from the waist up. Then, paint the survivor from head to toe, showing their inner warrior. While Kenyon was painting Lercara, she didn't want to look in a mirror—she wanted it to be a surprise. She says she's never even done face painting before, and had no idea what Kenyon was doing as the brush moved across her body.
Kenyon took components of Lercara's story—her fear of her cancer returning, her mutated gene, her work raising awareness about breast cancer—and incorporated them into two stunning bodypaintings, beautifully displayed on Lercara's body. Lercara broke down in tears when the bodypainting was complete.
"When they showed us the mirrors and I got to see what I look like, I was in shock," she says. "It was awesome to see how they used our stories and put our stories on our bodies. I'd never felt so beautiful ever in my life, and here I was completely nude in front of a lot of people."
Lercara says she's been changed forever by the experience, and she's found a sense of confidence in her body again.
"One breast is smaller and isn't shaped right, and I didn't see any of the flaws when she had finished painting me," she says. "So it was pretty incredible. It definitely changed me, and it's an experience that I wish all survivors could get to do."
Lercara hopes other survivors will watch the episode—it airs Wednesday, June 8 at 9pm EST on GSN—and learn about the support opportunities for young women with cancer. Also, as someone who adopted three children after her diagnosis, she hopes people learn there's a way to build a family after cancer takes your fertility. And, most importantly, she wants people to live every day to its fullest.
"Just live each day to the fullest and live life while you're here," she says. "Get out and see things and do things while you can. Get out of your comfort zone and do things you think you could never do. [Skin Wars] was something that—besides maybe jumping out of a plane one day—was hugely out of my comfort zone. But it was one of the best things I've ever done in my life."
Click through the gallery below to see celebrities who have publicly battled breast cancer:
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