Few countries in the world place more of a premium on beauty and glamour than Venezuela. Its beauty pageants are a national obsession, attracting breathless media coverage and huge television audiences.
But one former Venezuelan beauty queen has decided to publicly chronicle a “not pretty” part of her life: Her grueling battle with cancer.
Eva Ekvall, a former Miss Venezuela and Miss Universe finalist, penned a book, “Fuera de Foco (Out of Focus),” her journey from discovering she has breast cancer through her punishing chemo and radiation treatment, and her eventual mastectomy – all while working on TV and caring for a young child.
And she chronicles her raw experience not just through words, but through candid photos taken by celebrated Venezuelan photographer Roberto Mata, who shadowed her during her months-long treatment.
It’s those intimate glimpses into such a rough period of her life – her face ashen and puffy, her head bald, her body frail and limp – in a country where beauty is everything, that has made her book such a hit in Venezuela.
It was a far cry from when she was Miss Venezuela 2000, and the third runner-up to Miss Universe in 2001. But Ekvall, a television presenter in Caracas, said it didn’t seem that strange to her at all.
“Now that I see it, now that I’m better, I do look at the photos and think they are shocking,” Ekvall said recently. “But back then, that’s what I was seeing in the mirror every day. It was what was going on in my life, and I didn’t have much of a reaction then. It was what I was seeing every day.”
The idea for the book came from SenosAyuda, a Venezuelan organization trying to urge people to get an early diagnosis of breast cancer. Ekvall, who was 27 and a new mom when she was diagnosed, said she agreed to it to keep her mind off what she was going through.
“I had to keep myself busy,” she said. “And I decided this was a good idea.”
Mata practically followed her every move, snapping photos of a terrified Ekvall on her way to surgery, a cheerful Ekvall hugging her daughter, a serious Ekvall having breakfast with her family. The pictures accompany diary-like emails she sent to family and friends detailing her up-and-down progress as she undergoes chemo.
“This time it hit me hard – I feel fatigued and have out-of-control thirst that lasts several days, then I have all this energy I’d never felt before. Maybe it’s all these vitamins and supplements I’m taking (I calculate I take 20 daily),” she says in her book. “I can’t wait until I’m over this and I can live my life like I did before.”
The book, published by Venezuelan firm Aguilar, is only available in Venezuela but plans are in the works to make it available online. It is already a bestseller in Venezuela, where even the poor women save up and shell out thousands for breast implants, yet most don’t bother to get simple breast exams.
“The book has really made people more aware of breast cancer. I could see it in their reaction when Eva speaks to them,” said Adriana Uriba, an education coordinator for SenosEduca, the education component of SenosAyuda. “People see her then they start asking what they could do, what they should do. She’s a public image in Venezuela, so what she tells them makes them very aware.”
Ekvall, meanwhile, says the book is teaching her a lot as well.
“It taught me to do things I never thought I would do,” she said. “I never thought I would write a book. It taught me you have to work hard for things you want.”
As for the cancer…
“I thank the cancer for giving me back my will to live,” she said. “Thanks, cancer, for reminding me who I am and what I can do.”
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