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Breast Cancer Made Me a Better Entrepreneur And A Stronger Woman

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My name is Suzanne Sinatra. I am a woman, a friend, a sister, a daughter and I am the CEO and Founder of Private Packs. I fought breast cancer, and I won. October is breast cancer month, and before this year I never paid attention to this type of cancer or any other cancer ribbon, month, or drive. Why? The disease did not affect me or anyone in my family, yet.


Now I know breast cancer. It is a killer and it's savage. According to Breastcancer.org about 1 in 8 women in the United States (about 12.4%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. In 2018, an estimated 266,120 new cases of invasive breast cancer are expected to be diagnosed in women in the United States, along with 63,960 new cases of non-invasive (in situ) breast cancer.

My name is Suzanne Sinatra, and I am the founder of Private Packs. I design ergonomic cool and heat personal packs for the privates - yes those privates. I selfishly created this product because I went for my usual Brazilian wax, and this time the esthetician ripped off all my hair and skin. When I got home, I opened my freezer, and it was as if my vagina said: “You're not putting peas on me!" I shared this with my friends and to my surprise, they shared with me their painful vagina stories and instances they could have used a personal pack.

Either after a Soulcycle sweat session, after childbirth, first lesbian sex, during their recurring UTI's or during their period or more. What shocked me was not that they had these experiences, but that I've known some of these women for over ten years and they never shared with me their intimate pain until I shared with them mine. Just as menstruation was at one time considered taboo (Thanks Thinx!), vaginal pain is sub taboo - we don't talk about it even to our fellow tribe members.

In 2015, I had my annual mammogram, and the Radiologist saw something that concerned them. They called me, wrote me letters begging me to come back in for more tests. I remember thinking “I don't have time for this, I'm building a startup." I decided to ignore them.

Fast forward to 2017. I was exhausted, more than usual. I was working on my startup before and after work until the wee hours of the morning and on the weekends. I wore my tiredness as a badge of honor. Yeah! I'm a great entrepreneur because I'm super tired and I have bags under my eyes that are the size of Casper mattresses.

In hindsight, that sounds so wrong. I can't even fathom today what made me think that living like that was actually living. But this is what many in the startup community consider as skin in the game. Investors want to see founders work this hard, and other entrepreneurs admire it. I felt that I had to go even harder than everyone else because I'm a first-time entrepreneur, I'm female, and I'm black. I purposefully did not take care of myself because I felt that being seen as a serious entrepreneur was more critical than my wellbeing.

Two months away from launching my Indiegogo campaign and still working full-time, a guy I was into broke up with me over text. Think Carrie Bradshaw and Burger 2.0. Pissed off and disappointed I hugged myself, and as my right hand swiped my left breast I felt it.

WTF! I ran to the mirror, and I saw that my left breast had a divet. I instantly knew what it was. Over the next few weeks, I had a mammogram and biopsy that left my body and spirit black and blue, but I couldn't dwell in that too long because I was simultaneously getting ready for a product launch, auditioning for a TV show, and I had a 9-5 job. It was too much, but I still kept going.

August 11th at 2:47 pm, my doctor called me and said the three words no one wants to hear, “Suzanne, you have cancer." The Mohammed Ali level of beating I gave my spirit commenced on that day; "You did this to yourself, you deserve cancer because you didn't take care of yourself, you're dumb, you were warned and being accepted by others meant more to you that your health." I was sad, alone and directionless. I had to find an oncologist. I now have a recurring disease, but I only had two months of savings, I didn't even have food in the fridge. How was I going to take care of myself with cancer? What was going to happen to Private Packs? Am I still going to feel like a woman? Was this the end of my dating life? Was I going to die? Was I going to die alone?

My doctor forced me to postpone my product launch. I am happy that for once I listened to them because the body changes came so swiftly that I didn't have the physical strength to launch a product.

The worst symptom of chemotherapy for me was losing my libido. My sex drive, sexuality, and sensuality – poof it was gone. I can only assume because I was single that my doctors didn't warn me or help me understand the effects of early menopause and the relationship between cancer treatment and sexuality. I became a shell of a person.

My last chemo was scheduled the day after my birthday. The end of this ordeal was near! However, I got another phone call that nobody wants to get from their doctor "Suzanne, we're stopping your chemo. Your cancer has spread and the tumors have grown. You're going to need surgery in a few weeks. Also, you will have to get a mastectomy instead of the planned lumpectomy and remove all of the lymph nodes in your left arm." I loved my breasts, They were beautiful 38D, identical twins. With removing my breast they also took what I felt at the time was my identity as a woman.

"I couldn't go to the women's march and risk getting sick but I made signs for the ladies to march with."

Suzanne Sinatra at the Yayoi Kusama art exhibit.

Throughout treatment and before surgery, I worked on Private Packs even though I didn't formally launch it there was a lot of work to be done. I carried my laptop to chemo, I attended essential networking events. I pushed my body, and I listened to it. If I needed to stay home, I did. If my body required rest, I rested. At 44, I finally started to respect my body and my wellbeing.

After my mastectomy, I had an identity crisis as a founder of a personal healthcare brand. Private Packs' mission is to create personal wellness products and educate consumers that their genital health and personal wellness is important to their overall health. Being a founder of a personal wellness brand made me feel like a fraud because I'm doing the complete opposite of what I created our mission to be. I did not look after my genital health, but I'm telling other people to do so? I felt like a phony, a bullshitter, a fake. Private Packs is a compassionate company. A difference maker. How was I going to do that if I did not walk the walk and talk the talk?

Five months after treatment I can proudly say that I have evolved as a woman and a founder because of breast cancer. I have stopped beating myself up, I am more confident because I live in MY truth. And that, yes, I neglected my health, but I woke up to what I was doing before it was too late. I love myself. I'm still a woman with one breast. I don't have my libido, and now I have vaginal atrophy because if you don't use it, you really do lose it. My doctor still has not spoken to me about sex and cancer, so I took the initiative to learn about it on my own. I referred to http://www.cancersexnetwork.org/ for information. Additionally, instead of watching Pornhub for a quickie I watch Make Love Not Porn because it is not a slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am kind of experience. Toilet paper is too rough because of the vaginal dryness, so I use Unbound Booshie wipes that I store in the fridge and bathroom, and I use Womanizer's InsideOut because I need vibration 3-5 times a week to stimulate the pelvic blood flow and restart my vaginal moisture. I'm a woman.

Today, Private Packs is still on its mission, and my voice as its leader is from a place of experience and authenticity. I have persevered, I'm strong and I have overcome my own self-imposed roadblock because of cancer.

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Lifestyle

Going Makeupless To The Office May Be Costing You More Than Just Money

Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.


Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.

Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.

As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.

Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.

So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.

Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.

For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."