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Chic Awearness supports mentoring program for ovarian cancer patients

Jan. 9, 2024, 9:52 AM

 

by Tom Wilemon

Marci Houff is the founder of the Chic Awareness fashion show and party that funds ovarian cancer research.
Marci Houff is the founder of the Chic Awareness fashion show and party that funds ovarian cancer research. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Chic Awearness, a fashion show and party that funds ovarian cancer research and supports women diagnosed with the disease, has grown into a premier gala held at Nashville’s finest venues since the first event was staged more than a decade ago in a hair salon with shampoo bowls improvising as champagne chillers.

The 10th anniversary Chic Awearness held at W Nashville in 2023 raised more than $200,000. The total amount raised over the event’s history is expected to surpass $1 million with the 2024 gala, tentatively scheduled for Friday, Sept. 20, at W Nashville.

“Ovarian cancer is a devastating diagnosis, but the last thing I wanted was to hold a depressing event. We want Chic Awearness to be inspiring, fun and positive. Judging from attendee feedback, we have succeeded on all accounts,” said Marci Houff, the founder and driving force behind the annual event.

Currently, Chic Awearness is supporting two new ovarian cancer research initiatives at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and providing matching funding for a social worker to coordinate Woman to Woman (W2W), a peer mentoring program launched at VUMC in 2023.

Originally founded in 2004 by ovarian cancer survivor Valerie Goldfein at Mount Sinai Medical Center, the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance (OCRA) supported the initiative and then expanded W2W nationally in 2011 as its signature support program.

Houff was the first person to sign up as a W2W mentor at VUMC.

“As a survivor, this immediately appealed to me, and I offered to participate. I am now mentoring a woman suffering from ovarian cancer who has so much in common with me. She was diagnosed at the same point in life as me, and even has a young child like I did at the time. We speak almost once a week and have developed a nice friendship. This has been so rewarding for me, and I can only hope that it has been equally meaningful for her.”

The need to talk about ovarian cancer is why she founded Chic Awearness soon after she moved to Nashville in 2012 from Ohio, where she had been treated for the cancer.

“I jokingly said, ‘Not only is no one raising money here for ovarian cancer, I’m not sure that many are even saying the word ovaries out loud.’”

She spoke to women friends about the subtle symptoms of ovarian cancer, a disease that remains difficult to detect at its early stages, and about her desire to raise money for research. She mentioned this to her stylist at Elan Hair Salon, who told her another employee was also an ovarian cancer survivor. She suggested that they approach the owner about holding an event at the salon. With the owner’s blessing, they removed the hair stations, decorated for the occasion, and transformed the shampoo bowls into champagne chillers. That first event raised $30,000.

Year by year, Chic Awearness has grown in popularity and succeeded even when it couldn’t be held as a live event in 2020 and 2022.

“We switched gears, and did a crowd funding campaign instead in 2022,” Houff said. “Lo and behold, we were able to raise over $100,000 without a live event. Chic Awearness supporters stepped up and showed a willingness to support the cause when COVID and other life events prevented a live event. We returned to an in-person event in September 2023 with record attendance and record funds raised of over $200,000.”

The event was both an elegant and rocking affair, with hors d’oeuvres featuring the familiar teal butterfly motif for Chic Awearness and live music by George Thorogood. Thorogood founded the Marla Thorogood Memorial Fund for Ovarian Cancer Research in honor of his wife, who died from ovarian cancer in 2019.

Chic Awearness is currently invested in two research initiatives. One aims to find out whether patients with ovarian cancer have a higher risk of developing a blood disorder called clonal hematopoiesis or blood cancers. The researchers, led by Alexander Bick, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine, are particularly interested in analyzing blood samples from patients who are taking PARP inhibitors, a new class of therapy for ovarian cancer. If patients taking PARP inhibitors have less clonal hematopoiesis, it may be repurposed as a treatment for blood cancer.

The other research initiative, led by Fiona Yull, PhD, associate professor of Pharmacology, will support her inquiries into how certain processes in the body’s cells affect the way tumors grow, using this information with the goal of designing new ovarian cancer treatments.

The W2W mentoring program was launched at VUMC after Alaina Brown, MD, MPH, associate professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, successfully applied for a grant from OCRA. The Chic Awearness Board of Directors voted to provide matching funding.

“Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center and the Division of Gynecologic Oncology are very excited to partner with Chic Awearness to bring Woman to Woman to VUMC,” Brown said. “In the short time that W2W has been established at VUMC, the program has already positively impacted several patients. Mentors like Marci play an integral role in providing the extra emotional and social support that is so important for our patients as they go through their cancer treatment.”

Chic Awearness provided an additional $45,000 to the $20,000 grant from OCRA with a commitment to help fund the mentoring program for its initial two years.

“I am not doing all of this by myself,” Houff said. “Chic Awearness has a board of passionate women, a dozen volunteers, who work diligently to make this a success. Many are survivors. Others have lost their mothers to ovarian cancer.”

Some of Nashville’s top clothiers take part in Chic Awearness, including menswear retailers. While many of the female models are ovarian cancer survivors, the male models have included Ronald Alvarez, MD, MBA, the Betty and Lonnie S. Burnett Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, who chairs OB/GYN, and Ben Ho Park, MD, PhD, the Benjamin F. Byrd Jr. Professor of Oncology, who is the director of Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

“Attendees get to see a completely different side of the models. Once they get up there on the runway and in the bright lights, they have a ball modeling,” Houff said.

To learn more about Chic Awearness, visit chicawearness.org. Women impacted by ovarian cancer can find support and learn about W2W by visiting ocrahope.org/help/ or by calling 212-268-1002 Monday through Friday.

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