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Sharon Payne Butler and Michelle Lockman of Bra Couture KC: Walking the Talk

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Over 40 percent of all men and women will be diagnosed with cancer sometime in their lives. In 2018, nearly 1.8 million will be told they have cancer, and more than 600,000 will die from it.

Treatments are expensive and complex, dictated by an individualized approach that must be taken. Those of lower socioeconomic means and medically underserved Americans are less likely to get recommended cancer screenings than those who are medically well served. They’re at higher risk to get late-stage cancer that might have been treated more effectively if caught earlier. A major contributing factor to these statistics is that most have no or little insurance coverage to help them through the financial burden of finding and treating cancer.

Their Stories
Sharon Payne Butler is a breast cancer survivor and founder and executive director of Bra Couture KC, which raises desperately needed funds to help uninsured and underinsured persons struggling with cancer. “No one can imagine dealing with cancer without having insurance,” said Sharon. “But some in our community have to decide between having treatments or providing shelter and food for their families. Being able to help these men and women through Bra Couture KC is the passion of the entire organization.

Michelle Lockman, volunteer for Bra Couture KC, echoes Sharon’s concern. “I’m so fortunate I have excellent insurance and can focus on my recovery. My medications cost over an alarming $12,000 a month before insurance, and I’ve probably spent $250,000 in just four months of treatment,” she shared. “If you didn’t have insurance, you’d have to choose between living and going broke or ignoring it and dying. I can’t imagine that, and it breaks my heart knowing there are people who have to make this choice or have no choice at all. How do you focus on getting healthy when you’re stressed about paying for it?”

Breast cancer can be extremely complicated and challenging for patients and their medical team. Sharon’s breast cancer impacted her immune system, leaving her not only with the challenge of surviving the breast cancer but as a Type 1 diabetic, a life-long condition. Michelle’s breast cancer journey began during a routine mammogram in 2009 with concerning results that led to surgery.

“I had a mastectomy on one side in December 2010 and finished my reconstructive surgery in April 2011. The ongoing monitoring of my other side was positive, but then six to eight months ago, the middle of my back started hurting. My massage therapist tried to get it unknotted, but after three or four months, we realized it must be deeper. An X-ray showed the cancer had come back, not in the breast, but in my back vertebrae. I now have metastatic breast cancer in my bones. I have five tumors in my vertebrae, one in my hip, one on my rib and two tumors in my lymph nodes on the side that had the mastectomy.”

Michelle’s cancer is characterized as stage four invasive cancer that isn’t curable and requires continuous care, much like the body needs specialized treatment for diabetes. But she has chosen to live her life in a positive way, which led her to Bra Couture KC. “It was just after my reconstructive surgery when I saw displays in the Halls window on the Plaza about Bra Couture. I asked my husband to do this with me, and I went to the website to sign us up. That year I served cupcakes, but I was blown away by the show with its costumes and survivors on the runway. I met Sharon and asked to be more involved, and in 2011, I became sponsorship director,” commented Michelle. “I didn’t realize so many people don’t have insurance. I was crying about losing a boob and didn’t realize how deeply others are impacted.”

The Results
Bra Couture KC’s annual event is a unique and fun auction, showcasing one-of-a-kind, hand-crafted bras, modeled by breast cancer survivors to celebrate their triumph over cancer. “I was aware of a similar fundraising event happening in Austin, Texas, and was impressed by the concept of breast cancer survivors wearing art-couture-designed bras to raise money for a specific purpose,” Sharon said. “I knew I wanted to bring it to Kansas City. We launched Bra Couture KC in partnership with the University of Kansas Cancer Center in 2010. We hoped to raise $20,000 but raised $90,000, and we haven’t slowed down. Every year we’ve grown, expanding our donations to other cancer service organizations throughout the metro. In April 2018, we brought in $360,000. In total, it’s close to $2,000,000. The goal for the April 12, 2019, event is $450,000.”

Bra Couture KC raises money for cancer patients in the Kansas City metro who can’t afford medication, transportation to treatment, prosthetics, wigs, surgical supplies, blankets, food, lymphedema garments and more. “We also issue cash vouchers to sustain a family for up to two months for their living expenses while they’re in treatment,” remarked Sharon. “For many underinsured or uninsured people, if they don’t work, they don’t get paid. We don’t want them to lose their house or apartment.”

Serving men, women and children touched by all cancers, Bra Couture KC celebrates breast cancer survivors to raise funds for organizations that are aligned with its mission. “Bra Couture KC is a volunteer-driven organization. This is a big job and the volunteers give up three or four months of their lives to do this. We have a core team of about 30 men and women volunteers, and each has an area of responsibility,” enthused Sharon. “We’re so passionate about what we do. Most volunteers are breast cancer survivors. Only a few have not had cancer, but their lives have been touched by it.”

These volunteers are critical to the success of Bra Couture KC given the massive size of the show. Sharon estimates nearly 1,200 attend the fundraising event each year in April. To accommodate the crowd, it’s held in a hanger at the downtown airport, magically turned into a gorgeous setting by the hard work of volunteers.

As the event has grown, so has the outreach offered by this nonprofit. Over the past two years, services have expanded to numerous hospitals and cancer service organizations in Kansas City. Over 5,000 patients in need have received services through the University of Kansas Cancer Center, Cancer Action, Truman Medical Center and North Kansas City Hospital. Mammogram screening parties take buses into underserved communities every quarter to provide free mammograms to women without insurance. Over 350 women have been screened to date with 250 planned for 2018 and 2019.

Verda Mae Salberg: In Memoriam
Just this year, with funds donated in honor of Verda Salberg, Bra Couture KC reached out to the Research Foundation to open Verda’s Place, an appearance center for uninsured and underserved cancer patients in the Kansas City, Missouri, community. Cancer treatments often result in dramatic appearance changes, creating emotional obstacles for patients and survivors. Verda’s Place, located in the Sarah Cannon Cancer Institute, offers wigs, hats, scarves, lymphedema sleeves, bras, prosthetics and other items to help them over that hurdle. It’s named for Verda Mae Salberg, who lost her battle with cancer in 2017. She was a longtime volunteer for Bra Couture KC and an advocate for cancer survivors. Verda graced the cover of HERLIFE Magazine in October 2016.

“I’m a commercial architect and drew up the plans for Verda’s Place. I showed them how to get the most use from the space for storage, privacy for clients and more. It was wonderful that I got to use my talents,” stated Michelle. “I’ve modeled for Bra Couture since 2011 as a walk-around model or runway model, and Verda was always a walk-around model. The year before she passed we did a segment on what happens when cancer returns, and she was on the runway for that.”

For Sharon and Michelle, the key to their work is preventing breast cancer from impacting any woman’s life by providing screenings and education. “Early detection is critical. Not one person I’m involved with at Bra Couture KC wants any man or woman to go through breast cancer. I’ve worked with over a hundred survivors of this disease,” noted Sharon. “Because of advanced technology, mammogram screenings are no longer painful. Many don’t go because they think they hurt, but they don’t.”

“I want to continue to provide education for underinsured and uninsured through my work with Bra Couture KC. Resources are available, but we need for all women to be educated and know that those resources are there for them,” shared Michelle. “I’m happier now than I was six months ago. I was in a funk because I didn’t know what I had. But now I do. I have a plan and I’m fighting. I’m enjoying every single minute of my life. Now I find myself doing things with people rather than doing things to make money.”

To donate to Bra Couture KC or volunteer, visit