Ivy Gunter - Supermodel
by Cindy Phiffer
Carrying the Olympic torch in 1996 was “a vacuum-packed moment” for Ivy Gunter. She has experienced others … such as the time that her doctor told the Wilhelmina model that her leg would have to be amputated. That was 19 years ago, and the beautiful young 29-year-old was a rising star.
“I was young and hot,” Gunter recalls. “I ruled the universe. I was living in New York, I was modeling, and nothing could touch me.” Or so she thought. The only adverse thing in her life was an annoying swelling in her right leg that grew increasingly painful.
“I’d go to the gym and work out and sit in the jacuzzi and let the swelling go down,” Ivy says. But the pain persisted. “There was nothing I could do to relieve it … I tried it all and nothing helped. It was unforgiving.”
Ivy was married at the time to the man who is still her husband and best friend, but when opportunity knocked, she had moved to New York and he was living in Atlanta. Their relationship remained strong across the miles, allowing Gunter the distance she needed to keep her secret. “It was total denial,” she now admits.
During a trip home to Atlanta to celebrate her husband’s birthday, Ivy consulted a doctor who quickly diagnosed the problem as osteogenic sarcoma, bone cancer. The tumor was lodged on the fibula of her right calf. “At that time, amputation was my only option,” she remembers, “followed by a very aggressive chemotherapy protocol.
“It’s a very profound moment when someone looks you straight in the eye and tells you that you have a malignant tumor,” Gunter says, “but I had no idea what they were saying to me — didn’t have a clue. I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t want to hear it or if it was because I just truly did not know what he was saying to me.”
She may have been naive about cancer, but Ivy knew what had to be done. Four days later, the young model was wheeled to an operating room to have her right leg amputated.
Ivy’s first though after surgery had nothing to do with what her future held. “The thing had caused me so much pain — I couldn’t lace a sneaker, I couldn’t get into a shoe comfortably — and I’d done this hiding thing for so long that, when it was finally over, I was relieved that the pain was gone,” she says.
When the modeling agency learned of Gunter’s cancer, it immediately canceled her contract. When asked how this affected her life-is-full-of-choices philosophy, the 48-year-old survivor laughs heartily. “Sometimes it takes a double-dog dare to get your adrenaline going,” she says. “I’d already found out I had cancer, I’d had my leg taken away, and they were going to do a year of chemotherapy. Canceling my contract was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“In survival, doing something that you’re good at or something that you know about is very important.”
Instead of breaking, however, Ivy took up the challenge. “I started working on my own,” she explains, “and scared people to death. I’d walk into an audition, looking like walking death, but I thought I looked fabulous. I was bald, I had a cosmetic prosthesis and I had a Lucite cane. I had this bag of five wigs, and I’d go in there and say, “What color do you want? I can be a redhead, I can be a brunette, I can be a blonde ...” and they would sit there like, I can’t even believe she had the nerve to walk in here.”
Ivy refers to the movie Fearless to describe what carried her through those awkward moments. “In the movie, Jeff Bridges’ character survived a plane crash when the people all around him died. It gave him a sense of fearlessness, and that’s what cancer did to me. It made me realize that there really are no barriers other than attitudinal barriers that you create yourself about your sexuality and your femininity. It’s not necessarily the way somebody else looks at you at all.
“We as cancer survivors, as amputees, as disabled individuals, we are responsible to set the pace for how others see us. That is part of our responsibility. That’s something that we have to take control of. Fortunately, this experience gives you the soulful strength and adrenaline to do that.”
Moving into uncharted territory, Gunter created a career that puts her many talents to use. “There weren’t very many one-legged bald models out there, so I didn’t have any experience to pull on,” she quips. “I was out there by myself as a sole pioneer. I entered the force without a map, and I just sorta went for it.”
About 10 years later, Ivy’s amputation site developed bone spurs. “At the time that my amputation was done, it was something that just kind of happened,” she explains. “I had an extra three inches taken off, which really provided me with a better-fitting prosthesis.
“This time, going into my second surgery, I was a more knowledgeable patient. I interviewed doctors. I interviewed who was going to do this, and then I put the whole scenario together. It was in my control. The first go-around, I had no control, which made me crazy. They were all telling me what I had to do, and when they’re throwing survivorship statistics at you, you listen.”
The veteran cancer survivor is passionate about sharing her survival skills with others and does so as an inspirational speaker. “When I speak to cancer survivors, I wear running shorts, a T-shirt and Reeboks,” she says. “I appear as a rehabilitated survivor. This is a lifelong transformation; it’s not just something you go through for several years. About two years ago, I decided that I was tired of wearing heels all the time, so I started wearing my sports prosthesis to my speaking engagements. I call it ‘the Terminator.’ He’s a sports prosthesis. He’s absolutely fabulous. He looks nothing like a real leg. He’s very graphic. What you see is what you get. There’s no disguising any more. I love myself. That’s part of the journey.
“It’s not an easy transition, going from having to be this perfect-looking survivor to being who I really am,” Ivy admits. She credits getting back to work with building her confidence. “In survival, doing something that you’re good at or something that you know something about is very important.”
Speaking openly about her own survivorship provides a benefit Ivy had not anticipated. “There’s a sorority of survivors out there,” she says, “but their physical battle is hidden. I could be in the drug store, I could be anywhere and someone will say, ‘Wow! What a cool leg! Where’d you get that?’ That door is open.”
Creating “pockets of control” is another tool Ivy recommends. “If you can’t control something that’s going on inside your body, find something that you can control, whether it’s doing the laundry or going to the grocery store every Saturday or whatever that is. There’s a great sense of relief at having even just that little, itty-bitty bit of control.”
Although support groups were not as available as they are now, it’s unlikely that Ivy would have been drawn to a formally organized group. That is not to say that she didn’t have support. Her circle of friends drew close and Ivy let loose. “They allowed me to talk,” she recalls. “They opened up that door and, man, I let ’em have it.”
Making specific requests from supportive friends is another suggestion Gunter makes to other cancer survivors. “Tell people exactly what it is that you need from them because they want to help, they just don’t know how. If a patient says something like, ‘Oh, I can do it myself. I don’t want to trouble you,’ then friends don’t know how they can help. If we can tell them what they can do for us, even if it’s the most menial thing, it helps them to get closer to us.”
Having a supportive spouse was also invaluable to Ivy. “My husband, Don, who is fabulous, became the strongest person I’ve ever seen in my life. He dictated how this was going to be done. The first thing he told people was, ‘No tears inside her room. If you want to cry, if you want to talk about it, if you have issues with it or whatever, do not talk about it inside her room.’
“So, when people came into my room, there was a party because they did all of their grieving outside the room. I don’t know if that’s healthy or not, but that’s how we got through it together. It worked for us.”
The importance of sharing her success story with other survivors mirrors Ivy’s experience carrying the Olympic torch. “When the girl gave me her light, it was such a giving moment. It’s like someone has just given you life. The whole act of taking it for your length and then sharing it with someone else is a lot like what cancer survivors give to each other. You’re taking it, you’re getting through it, you’re doing what you have to do for that moment, and then you’re passing it on to someone else at the very beginning of their journey.”
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Read more of Ivy Gunter's story in the Sept/Oct 1989 issue of Coping® with Cancer.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 1999.