Categorized | Business, Living, People

Bring it On! Surviving Breast Cancer

By AML Staff Writer

In store photos courtesy of Kevin E. McPherson

Breast Cancer Survivor and Entrepreneur Barb Gunselman

Breast Cancer Survivor and Entrepreneur Barb Gunselman

Two years ago West Chester’s Barb Gunselman was the consummate Main Line housewife. The mother of four to Taylor, 18, and Morgan, 17, and stepdaughters Cory and Casey, 19 and 20, respectively, the Gunselmans flourished as a happy, active blended family. Gunselman’s days comprised of socializing with an exclusive network of women who filled their time with tennis matches, dining at the most prestigious restaurants and shopping at the finest stores in the area. “I shopped every day with a core group of women, we talked about how big our rings were and how big each other houses were—whose house had more square footage believe it or not. That was the thing to do and that’s what I thought I kind of wanted, running the charity balls, belonging to ‘the club’ and it seemed like so much fun. It was for a little while, all the people and parties. I thought it was important, what would fill up my life. Then I had a routine doctor’s appointment and everything changed,” Gunselman reflects. In June of 2006, her physician did what Gunselman calls a ‘ridiculous breast exam’ despite telling her doctor that for months she had felt a sharp pain in her left breast that had become more intense. “I went home and was very upset. I told my husband it was not right. My doctor had not done a thorough exam in my opinion and had even refused to schedule a mammography. I did not feel good about it,” she adds.

A month later Gunselman, then 43, took matters into her “own hands” and made an appointment for a mammography. The next day the doctor’s office called her promptly to come back in the office. “When I got there, I knew right away. They were falling all over me, being way too nice saying things like, ‘Oh, hi Mrs. Gunselman how are you today?’ And my girlfriend, who is a nurse, just looked at me and said, ‘Something’s up, they are paying way too much attention to you.’ And she was right.” Gunselman walked into the doctor’s office with the results of her mammography on the wall and a clear, large image of a white mass on her left breast. “So, I walked in and there it was, this white ‘thing’ staring right back at me. And I said, tell me that is not mine?! And the nurse said, ‘Yes it is.’ So that was it. I just knew I was in so much trouble.” Gunselman was rushed into an ultrasound and told shortly there after that she needed immediate surgery.

Gunselman searched far and wide to do her surgery as soon as possible. Late in the summer of 2006, still unsure if the mysterious mass was a cluster of lymph nodes or something more serious in nature, she had a minor procedure to test the mass. “My mother and sister had come down from North Jersey, I had told them not to. And, so a few days after the procedure I was getting my stitches removed which was no big deal. Then the physician casually said, ‘Meet me in my office, you can bring your mother and sister if you want.’” The three Gunselman women calmly sat across from Barb’s doctor as she opened her folder and began to read the results. Barb Gunselman’s tissue was malignant. “I (mentally) left the building, I was not there. My doctor never said the word cancer. We were all just sitting there listening and turning numb. So then my mother–halfway through the doctor’s speech–interrupts the physician and says, ‘Excuse me, does my daughter have breast cancer?’ And she said ‘Yes, yes she does.’”

Barb Gunselman and her number one fan, daughter Morgan

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
Barb Gunselman and her number one fan, daughter Morgan

Gunselman’s tumor was determined to be stage 1, grade 3. “Stage three is fast growing, fast moving so I had to have another surgery right away and then, on September 5, 2006 I started chemo. I had one last cigarette on the way to chemo and my sisters who were driving said, ‘You are on your way to chemo!’ But, I have not had a cigarette since. Probably because everything tasted so bad from the chemo, but I had been planning on quitting anyway. So, I quit smoking and told myself I owe myself to eat as much ice cream as I possibly wanted too!” Gunselman began her chemo mostly alone with her family in North Jersey unable to come down frequently because of the distance. But her husband and children were beside her as much as possible. “I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my daughter Morgan in all of this. She was my biggest support when I was sick in bed, she came to chemo with me, she came to a few radiation treatments with me, she made jokes about my bald head, and constantly kept me laughing,” Gunselman said. But a majority of the time Barb went to her treatments alone simply because her family had jobs and school commitments. As for her close group of friends, the country club, fine dining ‘girlfriends’, they were nowhere in site. “They dumped me like a hot potato. They could not handle it. Nobody wanted to deal with the fact that I was sick. Well, guess what? I couldn’t handle being sick and I’m the one with cancer! People did not know what to say or act when I got cancer.”

Barb and her husband Rob Gunselman

The Bald and The Beautiful
Barb and her husband Rob Gunselman

Soon Gunselman was surrounded by a whole new crop of friends who heard about her cancer through her children’s schools and the West Chester community. “They swooped in out of nowhere and took up the wagons and took care of me. Now, they are my friends—my real friends,” Barb reflects. A few weeks after her new emsemble of supporters were in place, Gunselman hosted a head-shaving party at her house. “I was casually shaving my head and everyone was telling me I had a great round perfect beautiful head! I was thanking God at least I had a smooth head—bald but smooth,” Gunselman jokes. When the reality set in that she had shaved off all her hair, Gunselman locked herself in the bathroom and cried.

But, just has she had bounced back from the hills and valleys of chemo and radiation, Gunselman would bounce back to embrace her new physical appearance. One night as she was preparing for a society event, she had an epiphany. “I had a beautiful fancy outfit, I was getting ready to go to this big holiday party that December and needed something for my head. I did not want to wear a wig, no way I hated them. And, I was not going to wear a black bandana. So, my girlfriend and I went out and bought some Swarovski crystals and glued them on. Well, I was the hit of the party! Everybody at the party commented on my bandana and that was it. I started selling them around town, to cancer centers and through private orders.”

Bling on a Bandana…The Beginning of a Business

Bling on a Bandana…The Beginning of a Business

From there Barb Gunselman was off and running, not only beating breast cancer every step of the way but starting a new business called Bella Bandanas. Very quickly Bella Bandanas’ perfectly embellished head scarves developed a strong following in the Philadelphia suburbs and many people suggested to Gunselman to take the idea of adding ‘bling’ one step further. “We knew we were on to something. People were asking us to ‘bling’ their shirts, flip flops, handbags, everything. So, I decided I wanted to do this. I wrote up a business plan in one week and my family thought it was crazy. We rented the space in downtown West Chester and one year later on September 5, 2007 we walked in and started Bling it On!”

Since the embellishing boutique Bling it On (www.blingitonme.com) opened, Gunselman’s store is thriving and she is even considering branching out in other Philadelphia suburban locations. And, most importantly, she has had dozens of survivors and family members come to her store sharing their stories of struggle and survival. “I get so many emails from survivors all the time. I had a mother write to me who had a young daughter with cancer and asked me if I make little ones (scarves). I wrote back and said, ‘Now, I will.’ I had a father come in my store and just sob about his daughter. He had called beforehand and said he was coming in to pick up two bandanas. To see a father so broken up about his daughter, it was something else. It hit very close to home. But thankfully his daughter is doing very well. The best part of having cancer and my store are the emails that come across, almost daily, I love the ones that say ‘Thank you so much for making me feel pretty.’ And it is all worth it then, it is all worth it.”

Slim, healthy and vibrant, passing by Barb Gunselman on the street, one would have no inkling that she was fighting a battle with breast cancer less than two years ago and wondering how to get through the next day. Now, a proud survivor who is living life to the fullest, Gunselman is very honest that the “C” word is never far from her mind. “I get scared every day. I get scared when I have an ache and a pain. It’s scary, if something doesn’t feel right you start to worry. Because you don’t know what little random cells may have gotten loose and I hear a lot of stories over and over and you just don’t know.” Gunselman will be on medication for three and half more years before being considered in full remission. And her advice to the thousands who may hear her story and wonder how they can help another family member or friend who was recently diagnosed? “People did not know what to say or act when I got cancer. So, I want to let people know you don’t have to say anything people just want you to be there. I think people don’t know what to do or say all I really wanted was someone to come and sit in my nexd next to me, eat pizza and watch a movie. That is all I really wanted. People think they have to do something when you are that sick. You don’t have to look at my bald head, I won’t make you. People are just afraid and they shouldn’t be.”

Reflecting back on two years of what has been quite a journey, Gunselman is not bitter or angry about her bout with cancer. In fact, she considers it a blessing. “When I was a little girl, I said to my Mom I wanted to have a store. I always wanted to be my own business owner. If I did not have cancer, I would not have a store. Cancer made me a different person, now I can do everything on my own. If I had not gotten through something that I had to do almost myself going to my chemo and radiation, I would not be here. As crazy as it sounds, this is a Godsend. People told me that having cancer was a gift and I get it now, I totally get it. You find out who your friends are, you become stronger and nothing is as important as it used to be.”

Bling It On! is located at 134 North High Street in West Chester, PA and is open Tuesday through Sunday. Store Hours are as follows: Tues, Wed, Fri and Sat 10-6pm, Thurs 10-8 and Sun 11-4pm. Check out www.blingitonme.com or call 610-696-6996. You can contact Barb Gunselman directly: barb@blingitonme.com.

A portion of every purchase at Bling it On! goes to cancer research and education.

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5 Comments For This Post

  1. cathy nyhan Says:

    Hi Barb,

    Penny McNally forwarded the article….. you are soo AMAZING!! I am so happy for you and your businsess How wonderful to touch so many people and making such a difference in their lives by giving them the hope and positive outlook they need…What a beautiful way to celebrate life by giving back and by example showing you can beat this horrible disease…What a gift!!

    Cathy Nyhan

  2. Miriam Cash Says:

    Barb…This was a lovely article. I am so honored to know you and so inspired by your strength, energy and joy! I will never forget the day you told me that you had been struck by cancer. Never. You were so honest and strong. I’ve tucked that away for future use. Who knows what life will bring.

    You are so blessed to have come out on the other side of this experience having so much to give back. Bravo! Keep going! See you at Bling It On! XO Miriam

  3. Chris Clark Says:

    Dear Barb,

    What a beautiful article. What an incredible keepsake for your children and their children. I am hopeful that the next generation will find it hard to believe that we even had to worry about breast cancer.
    Alli loves the beautiful scarves and headbands you made for her. Thank you!!
    We are so fortunate that Alli’s hair is regrowing. We were told that due to radiation of the head the second time, there was no guarantee that any hair would ever regrow. I’m sure you remember how long it takes to grow but either way,we are so blessed that it is coming in.
    Alli has said that God gave her cancer because He knew that she could handle it. You also have handled it w/ beauty and grace.
    I pray that your journey continues to empower you and all those who cross your path.
    With love,
    Chris Clark

  4. Emily McNally Says:

    Barb,

    My mom forwarded this to me. I knew the basics of your story, but not to this extent. It was amazing to read this article and to learn how your experience has really changed your life and made you a stronger person. She is very lucky to have a best friend like you.

    Love,
    Emily

  5. Julie Marks Says:

    Dear Barb,
    Thank you for sharing your courageous and inspiring story. I, too, have been down the same road and am recently getting back to my life. So much of what you said resonates with me, the “friends” who fell by the wayside, the wanting for someone to just sit with you and watch a movie. Like you, my breast cancer experience only made me treasure each moment of my life. I hope to stop in your store to say hello and pick up some Bling soon! What a creative mind you have! Can’t wait to see the items.

    God Bless,

    Julie

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