The facts aren’t funny. According to the American Cancer Society, one in eight American women will likely be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime, and more than 40,000 will die from this disease each year. But the Chesapeake Regional Health Foundation’s Bra-ha-ha® aims to give you a chuckle—and to raise money for the breast cancer cause.
The annual event, in which participants boldly decorate 38C bras for display, provides an imaginative and unique approach to this serious topic. Since its inception in 2008, the Bra-ha-ha has inspired brassiere masterpieces—from funny to poignant—from the Hampton Roads community. It has since expanded into an annual, regional campaign in the fight against breast cancer.
Some artists have submitted entries over multiple years, and it’s much more than just the bras that keep them coming back for more. It truly is a fun, original way to raise awareness of this deadly disease, to honor those who have won the fight, and to remember those who’ve sadly lost their battle.
“The Bra-ha-ha is such a positive thing to come from such a negative disease,” says Bambi Rivera, a Bra-ha-ha committee member and four-year breast cancer survivor. “Its parent organization [Chesapeake Regional Healthcare] and the event got me through some rough times.”
Diagnosed in 2011, Bambi learned of the Bra-ha-ha through one of her fellow breast cancer support group members and she designed her first bra while going through chemotherapy.
“I can remember sitting with my daughter at the kitchen table. Chemo causes your eyes to water excessively, and we just kept wiping my eyes and pushing through to keep working on our bras,” Bambi explains. “It was a welcome distraction from a very difficult time in my life.”
Bambi’s first bra was titled Bambi Lives On. On the bra cups she depicted a scene of Disney’s Bambi in a meadow. She chose the theme, she says, because Disney periodically releases the classic film from its vault, and she sensed she would eventually come out of her “vault” by overcoming her disease.
Kareen Rivera accompanied her mother to appointments and treatments. She is one of Bambi’s biggest supporters and became a source of strength during Bambi’s battle. Kareen remembers spending time with her mother during those nights of bra making.
“Working on our bras allowed us to keep our minds busy and not dwell on the treatments,” says Kareen. “The Bra-ha-ha is so great because it can bring anyone together and put a smile on everyone’s face and is for the great cause of raising awareness and getting people the breast health services they need. Without her mammogram, my mom wouldn’t have known about her disease, and she wouldn’t be here today.”
Since their first Bra-ha-ha, both Bambi and Kareen have submitted bras yearly. Bambi has used the Bra-ha-ha to document her breast cancer journey. One year her bra, titled I Love These Patties, was made of YORK Peppermint Pattie wrappers.
“Chemotherapy can cause you to lose your taste buds,” says Bambi. “During my treatment, peppermint patties were one of the only things I could taste. I would eat them straight from the freezer.”
Kareen’s first bra incorporated dance into its theme. She turns to dance frequently as stress relief and an emotional release, and she used it to cope through her mother’s battle with cancer.
“I saw dance as my angel, so I put a tutu on the bottom and angel wings on the top. The bra was called Dance Never Dies,” recalls Kareen.
This year Kareen is heading off to college, and Bambi will mark her fifth year as a participant artist and her fourth year as a Bra-ha-ha committee member. They both still plan to participate in this year’s event as designers.
“Bra-ha-ha has brought me so much positivity and love, and it will always be a part of my life,” says Bambi. “It helped me cope, it helped my family cope and it helps women in the community get the care they need. We love that.”
Cindy Thomas, another frequent participant in Bra-ha-ha, has helped to raise awareness through her volunteerism and bra-art creativity over the last seven years.
“I missed the first year, but started the second year after seeing an advertisement,” says Cindy. “I have always been artsy, and my mother was a breast cancer survivor at the time. I thought this would be something fun to do for a great cause.”
Fourteen bra submissions and five winning entries later, Cindy often works awareness messages into her bra descriptions—or “inspirations” as they are called at the event. “Grab a cup and get your squeeze on with a yearly mammogram, and get the best protection for early detection,” served as the inspiration for her 2014 “Most Creative” category winner called Get Your Squeeze On.
“I like to begin right after the Bra-ha-ha Awards Show and Auction. I love to see all of the creative ideas that the bra makers submit. It inspires me,” explains Cindy. “I then write down my ideas, sketch them out on paper, figure out the materials I need and get to work.”
Cindy typically submits more than one bra during a single year. In addition to last year’s winning bra, she submitted Ellie Nellie Never Forgets, a papier-mâché elephant face built from an alien mask and a pool noodle. She’s proven, along with the other artists, that the creative opportunities on such a small bit of fabric are endless.
She often encourages friends and other interested community members to submit bras no matter what.
“I tell people to submit even if they think others will have the same idea, because everyone has a different take on these themes. It’s for a great cause even if you don’t win anything, and it’s so much fun. But get started early,” advises Cindy.
Each year the bras are displayed at the annual Bra-ha-ha Awards Show and Auction, a premier fundraising event. Since the Bra-ha-ha started, more than 1,400 bras have been submitted, and more than 1,000 women have received free breast health screenings from proceeds.
“The fact that these people and companies are willing to create or sponsor something in order to help our community members is just amazing,” say Bambi. “If we can help others get the services they need or provide a distraction for someone going through treatment, then it’s worth it. That’s what it’s all about.”
Breast cancer has touched all of us in some way, and the Bra-ha-ha isn’t your average event. These bras offer a different kind of support through laughter, breast health services, and the love of a community to those who need it most.
Shirley Forbes is the Chair of the Bra-ha-ha Committee. If you’re interested in participating in this year’s Bra-ha-ha ha, Bra registration is open until August 31 and the annual Awards Show and Auction is scheduled for Sept. 25. Participants are encouraged to decorate 38C bras with fun, creative themes aimed at raising awareness of breast cancer or inspired by personal experiences with the disease. Tickets for the event are still available. More information and important dates are available at www.brahaha.org.