In Her Words Oct 2012: Barbara Bates


The famous fashion designer and founder of the Barbara Bates Foundation recalls her battle with breast cancer.

I consider myself an intelligent woman, but had all the wrong information pertaining to breast cancer. I thought there had to be family history of this disease to be at risk. Surely women with big breasts got breast cancer, and I believed white women were at a greater risk. WRONG.

When I felt a lump in my left breast, I wasn’t worried. I had a biopsy on that breast when I was 27 and it turned out to be nothing. So surely I wasn’t worried about this new lump. I mentioned this to a girlfriend; she was far more concerned, so I made an appointment to have it checked out. On June 1, 2009 at 11:00am, after seeing the doctor for about three minutes, she said, “You have breast cancer.” By 4:00pm that same day I had an ultra sound, removal of several lymph nodes under my arm and a breast biopsy.

I decided to get a second opinion and began a long journey of treatment and renewal at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. I had a lumpectomy, then a port placed in my chest for easy access for my 14 chemo treatments. I received 35 treatments of radiation and one year of Herceptin. Through this process I lost all of my hair and 20 pounds. The journey was long and the fight was hard, but I was victorious.

After treatment I gained my weight back, got new cells in my body, new hair, healthy skin and a new attitude toward life. I’ve had so many people praying for my recovery. All of our prayers were surely answered.

I continued to work during all of my treatments. There were a few days I didn’t feel well and stayed home. I can count them on one hand. My business didn’t suffer; it thrived. After my bout with breast cancer and being exposed to millions of people from my appearance on NBC’s Fashion Star, new opportunities are coming my way, including fundraising fashion shows from various organizations in Illinois and outside of Chicago and speaking engagements on breast cancer. Even the American Cancer Society reached out to me for their annual “Cure by Design” show to feature my designs. Breast Cancer changed my life. I realized how blessed I was to have a God-given gift to design and create.

All I know for sure is that I have to keep it moving. No time to shut down and wallow in self-pity. I’d love to have a nervous breakdown with all that’s come my way during my breast cancer battle, but I don’t have time. I’m fighting multiple battles. I need my sanity and strength.

Every year I have a fashion show fundraiser. The Barbara Bates Foundation (BBF) has given away over 500 custom prom dresses and 200 suits to deserving high school seniors for prom and graduation. This year the fashion show will add a new component. On October 28, the BBF will host a fashion show at Prentice Women’s Hospital at Northwestern. Fifty models – all breast cancer survivors – will grace the runway. They come from all walks of life, and we’ll celebrate their courage and educate our audience on the importance of mammograms and early detection. All of the fashions worn in the show are from Barbara Bates Fall 2012.

The event also marks the launch of a partnership between BBF and the Lynn Sage Cancer Research Foundation. BBF will raise money for a grant to educate and address the disparities of breast cancer screening and treatment faced by women in African-American and Latino communities.

Today I find myself always asking women, “Have you had a mammogram this year? When is the last time you did a self-exam?” And I stress the importance of early detection. There are no gray areas when it comes to breast cancer. You have to address it now so that I can dress you later.

Jill Alise Mitchell Makeup

About Barbara Bates

Barbara Bates was born and raised in Chicago, attending the public schools and graduating from Marshall High School in 1972. Upon graduation, she held a variety of jobs and began selling her own designs during her lunch breaks. After receiving an investment from a wealthy client, Ms. Bates was able to ditch her day time gig and launch her own fashion empire. She has since dressed many influential figures such as Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and Whitney Houston, and currently oversees a studio in Chicago's South Loop. In 1999, she founded the Barbara Bates Foundation, which donates prom dresses and formal wear to inner-city high school students. The Foundation seeks to empower underprivileged teens to rise above their circumstances and become successful individuals in their chosen field of study.