Veteran Lannan’s message was delivered with body paint
As a 41-year-old Army Veteran and VA health care patient with stage four breast cancer, and a lesbian who is a staunch advocate for the LGBTQ community, Halli Lannan admits she doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a trend-setting fashion model.
But that’s why Lannan was willing to walk the runway during New York Fashion Week to raise awareness for metastatic breast cancer (MBC) research.
Metastatic breast cancer, or MBC, is cancer that has metastasized, or traveled to other parts of the body.
Lannan said that by walking in the fashion show, she wanted to “bring light” to MBC research. “We need more attention and more funds towards research,” she said.
Lannan also broached the subject of visibility. “I don’t usually see people that look like me in much of anything, especially not breast cancer campaigns,” said Lannan, who has a wife and a college-age son. “The majority of women that I saw in breast cancer campaigns were young, long hair and feminine, and running on the beach with their husband and their dog, and have breasts.”
Breast cancer may be Lannan’s toughest challenges faced, but it’s by no means the first.
Determined to finish her degree
An assistant director of curriculum and instruction for the Racine, Wisconsin, Unified School District, Lannan has completed two masters degrees since leaving the military. Completion of her dissertation for a doctorate as a Tillman Scholar has been slowed by the effects of chemotherapy, but she is determined to finish her degree.
A medic during her five years in the Army, Lannan experienced military sexual trauma. She has also confronted discrimination both personally and professionally because she is a lesbian.
After being diagnosed with stage two breast cancer in 2016, Lannan went through what she called “a rough six months of some pretty harsh chemo” and had a mastectomy.
Lannan was declared cancer free, but a year later it was found in her lung and she underwent surgery. In February, a new spot was found in her lung, and she will again continue chemotherapy.
She receives some of her treatments at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
“A lot of times when new patients come in they want a reconstruction,” said Dr. Chaowen Wu, plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the Milwaukee VA, who operated on Lannan. “It was kind of refreshing to hear that she just wanted everything to be natural.
“We do a lot of reconstruction, probably over 90% reconstruction, very little cosmetic stuff. That’s the realm of plastic surgery that I think a lot of people don’t quite understand.
“I feel very special to have been part of her care team. I love how she owns her natural beauty. Her message is one we can all aspire to. I’m just really happy that she is celebrating herself.”
“These things didn’t take control of my life.”
“I’ve had my fair share of difficulties,” Lannan said. “While I know that all of those things contribute to who I am, and obviously inform everything I do on a daily basis, I don’t want them to define who I am.
“Even though I deal with mental health struggles sometimes, and with PTSD, and obviously now with cancer, and different components of trauma in my life, I still have goals and I still have dreams and I still have aspirations and things that I want to do,” she said.
“And, while those things definitely impact my ability at times to do those things, I don’t want it to ever be the reason why I don’t accomplish anything. Being able to say, ‘These things didn’t completely take control of my life,’ is really empowering.”
That’s why Lannan agreed to take part in Cancerland’s 3rd Annual New York Fashion Week Show. The show benefited METAvivor, a non-profit organization founded in 2009 by MBC patients that focuses on stage four cancer research. Each of the runway models in the fashion show are living with MBC. Most wore clothing from AnaOno, which designs intimate apparel and loungewear for those affected by breast cancer.
Instead of wearing lingerie, Lannan made her statement by wearing body paint, which took three hours to apply.
Lannan said she had forfeited control of her body in terms of cancer and military sexual trauma, but the show allowed her to regain some of that.
“It was very much a moment of, I completely have control of my body right now, I’m choosing to do this, I’m sending a message of strength and empowerment, and I hope that other people out there that have dealt with the same thing see that.”
Painted across Lannan’s bare back were the messages, “Stage 4 needs more,” “I am 1 in 3,” and “This is MBC.” Her mastectomy scars were clearly visible across her chest, and the words “Hear My Voice” were painted from ear to ear along her jawline and over her mouth.
Lannan’s message resonated with the audience and those involved in the show. During Fashion Week, Lannan was interviewed for a story on National Public Radio and was asked about her modeling experience.
“She [the interviewer] said, ‘Have you ever been in a fashion show before?’ and I said, ‘I’ve never even been to a fashion show before.’”
Photo composite by B. Matthew Crockett, VHA Digital Media