Meet the Models, New England: Justine Egan-Kunicki

Justine Egan-Kunicki is a ten year cancer survivor at only 33 years old. At 23 she was diagnosed with 1B invasive breast cancer. After randomly finding a lump, (“by chance, I wasn’t doing self exams. I was 23 and felt like I was invincible”) she followed up with her OBGYN who thankfully, was thorough and sent her for a follow up scan. A week later, she found herself in surgery for a bilateral mastectomy, followed by 16 rounds of chemotherapy. At the time, she was commuting from grad school in Rhode Island to her treatment center in Connecticut: “it was hard. I was really alone. 2012 was a different time- young faces with breast cancer weren’t there. Social media wasn’t the powerhouse it is today for connection. I had support from family and friends, but it wasn’t the same as people actually going through it.” It’s why she is dedicated to walking the runway this year, so she can play a small role in representation for women who may not think anyone can relate to their journey.

Justine went on to graduate (on time!) with her PHD and is currently an associate professor at the Community College of Rhode Island. The years after were filled with re-acceptance of her body and working through the trauma of breast cancer at such a young age: “I had to grieve who I could have been. I barley got to know my boobs before I lost them. I only lived a portion of my life before this occurred.” A key element of her healing journey was the intention she set to practice yoga daily. Sometimes that meant five minutes, sometimes an hour, but as she got stronger, she felt connected to her body once again. So much so that in 2021 she got certified to teach yoga and further training allowed her to specialize in yoga work with cancer patients specifically. She currently teaches at a non profit wellness house for stage four women: “serving as an ally in that way has been so powerful even though stage four was never my experience.”

What has brought about the most comfort however, was Justine’s decision to remove her implants in 2019, after years of pain. When initially diagnosed, the decision to “go flat” was never on the table, it was “silicone or saline” she jokes. After careful thought and support groups, Justine knew she had to take steps towards a pain free life: “I woke up from that surgery and took the deepest breath I had in 9 years.” She comments on how she lived 1/3 of her life with her breasts, 1/3 with implants and now is embarking on her next breast journey. For Justine, it’s critically important that she is vocal about the choice to be flat: “you can still be feminine and not have breasts.”

Justine’s eloquence about her breast cancer journey is admirable, but she notes so much hard work and therapy went into her being so open about the past ten years. The experience of cancer, she notes, makes one confront their own mortality, but in the same token “you also learn how strong you are. Despite the struggle, I have learned I am a strong person who can persist and continue to enjoy life.” Indeed, though she gets the phrase of ‘new normal,’ Justine prefers to say she’s reframed her life now: “You find a way to make a new life.”