Breast Cancer Survivor Wins Beauty Pageant

4 min read  |  August 13, 2021  | 

Four weeks after her mastectomy, a South Florida physician claims Ms. Florida title.

“I thought Covid was as bad as 2020 could get, but then I was diagnosed with breast cancer,” says Kanwal Bawa, D.O. The Boca Raton-based cosmetic surgeon and single mother of twin boys recently told her story as part of the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center Survivorship Celebration.

Dr. Bawa’s path to recovery was not straightforward. She discovered a lump about three years before coming to Sylvester. She pursued medical help, but was told the lump was non-existent or nothing to worry about. “I went to two hospitals but was misdiagnosed. Then I came to Dr. Calfa and she saved my life,” Dr. Bawa says. Carmen Calfa, M.D., is a breast medical oncologist and medical co-director of Sylvester’s Survivorship Program. She was part of Dr. Bawa’s medical team, along with breast cancer surgeon Kristin Rojas, M.D., and others. “I couldn’t have done it by myself. It takes a village. My Sylvester team was spectacular,” she says.

First fear, then faith

breast cancer survivor beauty pageant
Dr. Kanwal Bawa becomes Ms. Florida

Dr. Bawa could have given in to frustration and fear. Instead, she got fierce. “I faced a choice. I could let cancer defeat me or I could fight. It was a spiritual and mental decision. I was not going to be crushed by cancer.”

For her young sons, it was another matter. “It was horrific for my children when I was diagnosed. They thought I was going to die.” Though she told her sons she would beat the cancer, they needed reassurance. Enter Dr. Calfa. Speaking to the boys on a videoconference call she told them, “I will take care of your mother.”

It was a profound moment for the Bawa family. “I don’t think Dr. Calfa realizes what that meant for my family. She changed things for us by looking my boys in the eye and saying, ‘Your mother will be fine.’ It gave my boys the faith that mama was going to be okay.”

Defying expectations

After going through the arduous process of breast cancer treatment and surgery, Dr. Bawa made a bold move. “At age 42, I entered the Ms. Florida beauty pageant. I felt that cancer should not take away the hope to live, that we should not feel less beautiful.” She was spurred on by her doctors, who encouraged her to participate in the pageant. The surgical team helped to plan her surgery and recovery, so she would be ready to participate

So four weeks after a mastectomy, having lost most of her “glorious waist length hair” to chemotherapy, Dr. Bawa walked across the stage at the U.S. Continental Pageant. “I went onstage with short hair and my port scars clearly visible. Cancer changed how I looked but I was no less a person. I went as ‘cancer girl’ and the cancer girl won. How about that?”

Life beyond cancer

Though she hopes to inspire other cancer patients with her determination to embrace life, Dr. Bawa credits her cancer care team for making it possible. “I couldn’t have walked that stage without them. I’m grateful to be alive.”

She’s so confident of Sylvester’s capabilities, she sent a friend to see them. “My friend is moving to Ohio, but I asked them to make sure she’s okay before she moves. That’s how much I trust my team at Sylvester.”

Dr. Bawa is looking forward to her future again. She helps raise money to increase opportunities for female cancer researchers and she encourages cancer patients. “I tell patients there is life beyond cancer. Hopes and dreams shouldn’t end with your diagnosis.”

To make an appointment at Sylvester, call 1-844-324-HOPE (4673) or visit their website.

Adapted for publication by Nancy Moreland, contributing writer.

Tags: breast cancer patient, breast cancer survivor, Dr. Carmen Calfa, Kristin Rojas, patient story, survivorship story

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