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.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.