Sometimes when the absolutely, most horrible thing happens to you, a beautiful gift eventually reveals itself. You must try to stay open to see the signs. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was open to the sign that I needed to make a change. At first, I was unsure of what the change would be, but eventually, it led to a new career.
My early career aspiration was to be an actor. After graduating from the University of Oregon, I moved to New York City and attended a Broadway conservatory at the Circle in the Square Theater. I loved every minute of working in the theater for 15 years, but as these stories often go, I was tired of not having enough money and I moved on.
Serendipitously, I married a man I met while working on a project in Russia and he eventually moved to New York City to be with me. He had a career as a film and TV director and actor in Russia, so uprooting and starting over was a challenge for him and for our marriage. After pivoting to a new career in real estate, my career took off and I became one of the top agents in our firm. The stress on the marriage led to its end, though we remain good friends.
After having so little money for so many years, suddenly I was earning a lot, and it became addictive. But, working constantly, I was exhausted and didn’t have time to enjoy the money I was making. I met my current husband in the same firm, and we became business partners. But we were tied to the work and did not have enough flexibility and fun. I remember thinking that something had to change.
In 2011, perhaps my body did what my mind wouldn’t allow: it made me stop. After a routine mammogram I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The rug had been pulled out from under me. I had no family history, had been a vegetarian for 25 years, I exercised regularly, and had never smoked.
My husband, David, was incredibly supportive. He stood by me and said “I’ll take over the business and take care of everything. You focus on you.” He loves real estate. It’s in his blood. He loves the negotiating and the stress of it. What killed me — drove him. And we laugh now because I don’t think he realized how much I was about to do. I changed everything in our apartment, and every day new things would arrive that were organic, ethically grown, or locally sourced.
One day, while at the pharmacy, I overheard the pharmacist explain to another customer that the cream rubbed onto her arm would enter her bloodstream. That freaked me out! I started Googling ingredients in my skin care and was stunned. The lemon and rosemary pictured on the front of my bottles were not even in the product. The next thing I Googled was how to make one’s own organic skincare. The beauty of living in NYC is that there’s a class for everything! I found a local class, called Bath and Body University: How to Make Your Own Organic Skin Care, and signed up to attend.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt as though my mind and body separated. It felt like a betrayal: if a loved one betrays you; you can leave that person. But when your body betrays you, you’re still stuck with it and you think to yourself, “I treated you well. I did everything I was supposed to do, and you betrayed me. I don’t know who you are and what else you are capable of.” During this class I finally felt my mind and body reconnect. I realized that instead of ruminating about all the bad possible outcomes, I could do something productive and take back control of my health.
I started educating myself on ingredients and sourcing. At the time, I was going through radiation, and was dealing with burnt, sensitive skin. I learned which plants might be most helpful with that and the best combinations for healing inflammation, redness, or for blistering. I really got into it.
When you go for radiation treatments, you see the same women, every day, for six weeks and really get to know them. I would say to them “on the way home stop and get some shea butter, coconut oil, some lavender and throw it in your blender…” and they’d say, “Cynthia, I have a full-time job, I’m a single mom with three kids under the age of eight, I just had six months of chemo. I don’t have the time or the energy to make my own products.”
So, I started making products for them, and I loved doing it. Giving my concoctions to them was more enjoyable than just doing it for myself.
The Birth of a Business
At the very end of my treatment my oncologist asked, “What have you been doing with your skin because it looks great.” When I told her, she half-jokingly said “well, you need to bottle it, sell it, and give it to us.” I expressed interest in doing it and she introduced me to the woman who runs the Breast Center Program at the hospital where I was treated to see if we could collaborate. We met and she was open to the idea.
After two years of development with biochemists and formulators, we launched our company, Violets Are Blue, in 2015, and we’ve been growing slowly and steadily ever since. Our first line of products was specifically focused for women in treatment. We began donating skin care packages to chemotherapy patients at the hospital. It helped them focus on being beautiful and healthy. In order to support the donation of products to the Breast Cancer Center, we created a second line of products for women who are aging. Ten percent of the proceeds from that line, support the donation program.
Sometimes I think not knowing what I was doing was a blessing: had I known what creating a business would require, I might been too scared to try. In the end I just jumped in! Now, I love running a business that allows me to work with creative and interesting people. It’s the best of the two worlds that I had been involved with before.
My mom and my husband have been the two people who have propelled me forward. During some challenging times, I’d call my mother crying and say that it felt as if the universe is telling me I shouldn’t be doing this. She’d say, “this is what happens when you own a business and you need to decide if you want to be a business owner. If you do not, there’s nothing wrong with that. But if this is what you seriously want to do, then you need to act like a boss, handle the challenges and move on.” Great advice.
My husband has been so encouraging and helpful because he’s been supporting us for two years while I grow the business. The command center of Violets Are Blue is the second bedroom in our apartment. I call it my “one woman sweatshop”, because it’s where the products are delivered, get packaged and shipped out for orders. It’s where I create the ideas for new products and where I conduct meetings.
I am focused on growing Violets Are Blue, both domestically and internationally. We’ve also partnered with a cosmetic company called Salty Girl Beauty and the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation. These collaborations offer patients beauty treatments and experiences as well as education on healthy choices for their beauty regimens.
While I don’t wish cancer on anyone, my life has changed in many positive ways because of it. What I have learned is that while a bad thing happened to me, it motivated me to take charge of my health and then begin to help others. That led to a new, unexpected and meaningful career for me. If tragedy strikes, you can either choose to shut down and stay in bed or become motivated to move toward something positive. I believe the latter is the way to go.
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