Katie Mackin and her husband were following all the right steps in life. They bought a home and were starting a family. They did the typical things young couples do, including getting into the local Raleigh music scene.
But the next step in their journey was one that most thirtysomethings don’t take: fighting cancer.
Mackin was about to turn 34 and her son was eight months old when her own coworkers broke the news to her that she had breast cancer.
Laila Roudsari, a Durham resident with a Ph.D in cancer research from Duke University, was only 28 when she got her breast cancer diagnosis.
Both women were younger than most doctors would even think to screen for the disease.
Both women have been named two of SaltyGirl Beauty’s inspiring women from across the country. Their prize? They’re about to have shades of lip gloss named after them.
Sarah Kelly started SaltyGirl Beauty along with her sister, an oncology nurse, with the mission of empowering women, especially those with or surviving cancer.
Kelly was eight months pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“You want some kind of control,” Kelly said, of being diagnosed with cancer. “It’s like, why did this happen to me?”
When she was going through chemotherapy after just giving birth, Kelly felt ugly, losing her hair and eyelashes.
Her sister brought her some lipstick to make her feel more feminine. It worked.
Soon after, she quit her corporate job in marketing and convinced her sister to open a business with her.
Their goal was to create makeup products that made women feel good, and that were actually good for them as well. The products are all clean and green, Kelly said.
At first, the sisters named their products after “badass” women in their lives. With their new line of lip glosses, they thought it was time to try something new.
They started a contest asking women from all over the country to share their stories of empowering other women, for an opportunity to showcase what they’ve done.
Six women, including Mackin and Roudsari, won the chance to have one of the new lip gloss shades named after them. Their lip glosses, the Laila and the Katherine, are now available on SaltyGirl Beauty’s website.
“Having this lip gloss is a symbol of me being able to inspire others,” Roudsari said.
A cancer diagnosis
It started as lower back pain, which was typical for a new mom picking up a baby all day long.
Since Mackin worked at an orthopedic clinic, she asked one of her colleagues to take a look. The worst possible situation in her mind was that she slipped a disc and would need surgery.
Instead, scans revealed that she had tumors lining her spine. Surgery was needed immediately to prevent paralysis.
After more tests, Mackin’s boss had to tell her that she had Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Metastatic breast cancer starts in the breast and nearby lymph nodes, then spreads to other organs in the body.
It cannot be cured.
Her first thought was her son. He needed her to be there for him. She wanted to watch him grow up.
Mackin got the call during a snowstorm, when she was stuck inside the house for two days. There was nothing to do but sit and wait.
“It was a vortex of emotions,” Mackin said. “There’s not really words to describe it.”
After undergoing reconstructive spine surgery, relearning how to walk, chemotherapy and radiation, Mackin is now stable.
Doctors will tell Mackin she’s healthy, but they’ll never tell her she’s cancer-free. It’s a disease that will be with her forever.
She goes back to the doctor every three months for more scans.
“Here I am about a year and a half later working full-time, raising a family and living as normal of a life as I can.”
Mackin calls herself a “cancer thriver.” She says the term “cancer survivor” implies that she gets to be done with the disease, which is not the case.
A young cancer survivor
Roudsari dedicated years of her life to cancer. She learned about it in classes, she read about it in textbooks, and she researched it in labs.
Then, when she was 28 years old, cancer became personal. It was no longer just her job, it was in her body.
After finding a mass in her breast at her annual gynecology exam, Roudsari was worried. She knew there was a chance that the mass was cancer.
She went to an imaging center to get tests done, and was told she didn’t have cancer. The radiologist quickly waved her on, saying she hadn’t seen anything in Roudsari’s breast.
But Roudsari knew better. Given her background, she knew that a mass in her breast was not nothing. She pushed her way into an another appointment for a second opinion. This time, they told her she had Stage 2 breast cancer.
Roudsari’s heart dropped, because she knew what she was getting into. She knew the months of chemo and radiation that were ahead. She knew there would be surgery. And she knew that the statistics were grim.
Most of the people in her life couldn’t understand her. They didn’t know what it was like to be so young and diagnosed with a disease like cancer.
The hardest part was losing her long, full hair. Her hair was special. It was important to how she saw herself and her self-esteem. She cut her hair short, preparing for what was to come.
But still, when Roudsari’s dad finally shaved her head, she sobbed the entire time. For weeks she couldn’t look into a mirror. She lost her eyelashes and all of her fingernails.
Scrolling through her social media pages while stuck in her apartment, Roudsari found that some women embraced their baldness. Instead of wearing wigs or scarves, they confidently rocked their bald heads.
Inspired, Roudsari began to do the same. She started actually wearing cute outfits again, and going out in public without covering her head, and without thinking twice.
From then on, it was just about getting through it.
On the day she rang the bell at her last day of chemo, she cried happy tears. She had made it.
Through the contest, Mackin and Roudsari hope to share their experiences and their messages with other women like them. (Ten percent of the profits from the six shades of lipgloss go to non-profit Foundation4Love, which helps families coping with cancer.)
Both emphasize that breast cancer is not just about wearing pink ribbons, the symbol of breast cancer awareness often seen in October during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
It’s a rough disease that takes a toll on your body. They want people to understand that it’s not pretty. It’s not women coming together to celebrate. It’s about fighting a life-threatening disease.
Roudsari turned to social media to find other people like her. She started a blog to share her own knowledge with other women in similar situations.
She knew that her vast knowledge of the disease was not common for most people diagnosed with cancer. For Roudsari, being able to help other women cope by explaining the science aspects of cancer kept her going.
For Mackin, the most important part of winning the contest was knowing that she would be able to shed light on metastatic breast cancer. Most funding and research goes to early-stage cancer, Mackin said. She has joined online support communities that advocate for more attention to metastatic research.
“I think it has the ability to inspire other people living with cancer,” Mackin said of her story. “People hear cancer and automatically assume you’re dying tomorrow.”