Fashion Icon Betsey Johnson

Fashion Icon Betsey Johnson Photo by Shannon Sinclair

on Beating Breast Cancer

by Kaylene Chadwell

For five decades, Betsey Johnson has emblazoned the fashion world with her unique and bold designs. The quirky fashion maven, who performs a cartwheel into the splits at the end of each runway show, began her career as a designer in the 1960s. She founded her own label only a decade later and quickly grew in popularity. Since then, her funky, fierce fashions and accessories have been sold in freestanding Betsey Johnson boutiques across the globe and in upscale department stores worldwide. 

Betsey’s contribution to the fashion industry has garnered various lifetime achievement awards and an induction into the Fashion Walk of Fame. But when she discovered an insidious lump in her breast, Betsey merited a different kind of achievement – cancer survivor.

The news of her breast cancer came just a half hour before she was to host her annual company Christmas party. “I left the doctor’s office, went to the party, and told everyone I was negative,” Betsey reveals to Coping® magazine. “The doctor was very reassuring that I would be OK, so I didn’t make a big deal about it. I stayed upbeat and positive.”

Initially, Betsey kept her breast cancer diagnosis a secret, fearing it could negatively affect her business. Her daughter, Lulu, was the only person who knew. 

“It was an incredible experience to go through with my daughter, the only person I told,” Betsey says. “It brought us closer together.” 

After a lumpectomy and 34 days of radiation (which she was able to keep secret by scheduling her treatment sessions early in the mornings), Betsey was cancer-free. Only after she knew she was in the clear did she open up about her private breast cancer journey.

“I was through it,” she says of her decision to finally go public about her cancer. “I hoped my positive outlook could help someone else going through it.”

Keep your sunny side up!

Since her cancer “coming out,” Betsey has been heavily involved in advocating breast cancer awareness by telling her story, participating in fundraising events, and designing clothing and accessories to raise money for cancer-related charities. She was named honorary chairperson for the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer Initiative and has been honored by the National Breast Cancer Coalition. She has used her retail stores as a platform for breast cancer awareness and as a way to connect to other breast cancer survivors, whom she affectionately calls her “pink ladies.”

“Pink is my favorite color,” Betsey says, “so naturally my pink clothes speak to breast cancer awareness.”

I hoped my positive outlook could help someone else going through it.

Even though Betsey has always displayed an optimistic and bubbly personality, beating breast cancer reinforced her “ability to live for today and be positive for the future,” she says. She proudly shares her story to uplift other survivors. “Keep your sunny side up, keep yourself beautiful, and indulge yourself!” she advises.

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Although, due to financial struggles, Betsey Johnson boutiques have closed their doors, Betsey is staying true to character and optimistically focusing on her more moderately priced department store line. She is also starring in a new Style Network reality show with her daughter called XOX, Betsey Johnson that premieres in May. A new line of signature Betsey Johnson dresses is set to coincide with her reality TV debut.

“The dress line is my true blue rock ’n’ roll, pretty, punky girl at a much more fantastic price,” she says. “[It will be] available at top department stores across the good ole U.S. of A.”

Cancer-free for more than a decade, Betsey continues to enjoy life. Even at 70 years old, she still performs her iconic cartwheel down the runway at the end of each fashion show.

“I’m going to keep on doing my thing and rockin’ out until I hit the hay,” she avows.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2013.