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Modeling resilience against colon cancer

Survivors took to the runway at fashion event to share stories

Some of the survivors of colon cancer who shared their stories at the Runway for a Cure and Booty Ball in Philadelphia were Denita Renee Wright Watson, Ruth Vera Vinals, Don Brobst, Willie Gresham, Dave Broughton and Robin Rehr.

A Gloucester Township man was part of a celebration of resilience that raised awareness of colon cancer at the Live! Casino & Hotel in Philadelphia on March 23.

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With Live! as a presenting sponsor, the Runway for a Cure and Booty Ball was hosted by Get Your Rear in Gear Philadelphia. The fashion-forward affair – held in conjunction with March as National Colon Cancer Awareness Month – featured six models on the runway who shared their journeys of overcoming the disease.

Maria Grasso, executive director and founder of Get Your Rear in Gear Philadelphia, founded her organization to raise awareness of colon cancer. Her personal connection to the cause – Grasso lost her father and grandfather to colon cancer – inspired her efforts to raise awareness and funds to fight a cancer that kills more than 50,000 people a year, according to the Colorectal Cancer Alliance.

Grasso has raised more than $3.5 million in the past 16 years, with all proceeds staying in the Philadelphia region to support colon cancer education, research and patient care.

“I started Get Your Rear in Gear Philadelphia in 2009 after my father passed away from colon cancer,” Grasso recalled. “Years befeore, my grandfather also died from this disease. For the last 16 years, I’ve poured my heart and soul into helping others impacted by this disease.”

Jennifer Nagle, vice president of special projects for Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, expressed admiration for Grasso’s unwavering dedication. She also highlighted how the Booty Ball event brought people together.

“It’s certainly an opportunity to include more people than ever,” she said.

Bonnie Grant, Executive Director of PHL Life Sciences, shared her insights on the event and Maria Grasso’s contributions to the colon cancer community. Grant has collaborated with Grasso on this event for 16 years, recognizing her extensive involvement with the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“She’s inspired by her father and her grandfather who passed away from colon cancer. Now this fashion show is very touching, and it engages the patients and their stories, so I am proud of her,” Grant said.

Among the event models sharing their colon cancer journey was Dave Broughton of Blackwood. He and the others showcased new spring fashions by Live! casino wardrobe manager Susie Benitez. But the clothes were not the point.

For Broughton, the point was to talk about proactive measures against colon cancer.

“Don’t be afraid to get checked out,” he advised. “If it doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t right.”

Broughton was also happy to share his story with fellow survivors and the Live! event audience.

“First off, it feels really good being here, celebrating surviving, celebrating other survivors as well,” he noted.

Other models who shared their colon cancer stories were Denita Renee Wright Watson from Pennsylvania; Ruth Vera Vinals, who hails from Barcelona, Spain, but now calls Philadelphia home; Don Brobst and Willie Gresham of Philadelphia; and Robin Rehr, also from Pennsylvania.

“My favorite part about the gala is we bring six models together that share a common bond,” Grasso pointed out. “They become fast friends that share stories, hugs and tears and become lifelong friends and a built-in support group.

“It’s a beautiful thing.”

Watson participated in the runway event to empower others, and like her fellow survivors, she was grateful for the chance to “model” her story.

“If you get a diagnosis, it’s not the end of the world,” she said. “We are testimonies and we are fighters and survivors.”

The goal of strutting down the runway, Grasso noted, was to send a powerful message of resilience, unity and determination to overcome colon cancer and other adversity.

“When the models’ video plays and you hear their impactful stories they share, there is not a dry eye in the room,” Grasso acknowledged. “The models want to give back so other folks can understand the warning signs. (They) have been through a lot in the last 12 to 18 months.

“It’s a way to honor their strength and to make them feel so beautiful …”

Grasso highlighted the significance of the Live! event happening during National Colon Cancer Awareness Month. The models were recommended by hospital partners like Jefferson, the University of Pennsylvania and Fox Chase Cancer Center.

“We’re here to remind everyone of the importance of screenings and early detection,” Grasso said, “and to support those affected by this disease. As the models take to the runway, they share their stories of resilience and hope, inspiring others to prioritize their health and seek screenings.

“Their bravery and strength are a testament to the human spirit and the power of community in the fight against colon cancer.”

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