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Last Updated: Monday, 2 October 2006, 08:42 GMT 09:42 UK
Women bare all to fight cancer
By Nuala McCann
BBC News website

When Sandra Biddle, a busy mother of three, became ill last Christmas, it plunged her back to the nightmare treadmill of tests, hospitals and nail biting hours waiting for results.

Eleven cancer survivors took part in the project - pic Studio Red i

She had been through breast cancer seven years earlier, had the surgery, the chemo, the radiotherapy and, as she thought, put it all behind her.

But she still knew what it was like to feel the icy fear that the cancer was back at the slightest ache.

Luck was on her side. Her tests were clear. It was a reprieve - a second chance - and she grabbed it hard with both hands.

"I had to do something to take away the fear," she said. "I'm a speech and drama teacher, I'm a showgirl and I thought I'd use those gifts."

The spark for Derry's own set of Calendar Girls was lit.

The original Calendar Girls were the ladies of Rylstone and District Women's Institute, photographed tastefully in the nude for a calendar to raise money for leukaemia research.

Their idea snowballed, Hollywood called and Helen Mirren and Julie Waters played starring roles.

Sandra took the idea but put her own slant on it. She found 10 other women from Derry aged from 42 to 68 who had all been through breast cancer and survived.

Some of them were treated nearly 20 years ago, some just two. She wanted them to pose nude for a calendar ... just the way the original calendar girls did.

Elaine Doherty - pic Studio Red i
Elaine Doherty was pictured on roses to reflect her love for life

On Sunday, the women took to the stage of the Millennium Forum in Derry to launch their calendar.

They want to raise money for the Breast Care Unit at Derry's Altnagelvin Hospital and the Marie Keating Foundation in the Republic.

But more than that, they want to send out a message of hope to all those who find themselves thrown into that dark tunnel of a cancer diagnosis.

All the women have had some kind of treatment ... lumpectomies, mastectomies, reconstructive work, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

But they bared their souls as they bared their bodies and their message was: "We're still here and we're still beautiful."

It took persuasion. Women of a certain age are reluctant at the best of times to take off their clothes. Over 40 is the age of the big pants.

"It was like a catching a fish," Sandra explained. She threw out the worm of the idea, hooked the other women's interest , then reeled them all in ... throwing caution, modesty and a whole heap of underwear to the wind.

"You don't say no to Sandra Biddle," joked one of the alternative Calendar Girls.

Others said 'Derry's answer to Oprah Winfrey' would never take no for an answer.

Carita Kerr, former Lady Mayoress of Derry, was among the women whom Sandra called.

Sandra Biddle - pic Studio Red i
Sandra Biddle was inspired by the original Calendar Girls

"When Sandra rang and talked about doing a bit of fundraising, I was all for it," she said.

"I pictured myself shaking a collection box in the middle of Derry. But then she mentioned a calendar ..."

There was a momentary hesitation, long enough for a penny to drop to the bottom of a round plastic collection box, but Carita's mind was made up.

"Let's go for it!" she said.

And they did.

On 13 June, they gathered for a photo shoot at Andrea O'Hare's studio and prepared to bare all.

The city of Derry was behind them. The ladies were treated to limousines, beauty treatments and champagne to relax them.

Andrea, an award winning Fuji photographer took the calendar pictures.

What Sandra didn't know when she approached her to take the photographs was that she, too, had had a brush with breast cancer.

"She rang and asked would I be interested in taking pictures in the nude. I put it down as a crank call to begin with," said Andrea.

Carita Kerr - pic Studio Red i
Former Mayoress Carita Kerr joined in the project

But when the idea was explained, she gave her support to the project.

The women describe her as the "12th honorary Calendar girl" ... she stayed firmly behind the camera lens, but was with them all the way.

Each woman has her story to tell. Attracta Bradley, Miss January, was open about her cancer.

No wig for her, she went to town with a bald head and started a trend for baseball hats.

She chose to be photographed with two suitcases because she believes life is about living out your dreams, and hers is travelling.

Each woman chose her theme. Carita Kerr, an opera singer, found a cello was just large enough to cover her modesty.

Props and smiles

Kate O'Dooher chose to have her picture taken with a baby because six years ago, when she was diagnosed, she thought she wouldn't live to see any of her grandchildren ... she did.

Miss March, Elaine Doherty, is pictured on a bed of roses because she loves life now, she lives for the moment.

Attracta Reid chose a pretty parasol to hide behind, Jane Cregan just wanted to show there was life after cancer and Miss July, Mary Sharkey's message to the world is: "Life is not a rehearsal, enjoy it!"

Anne Harvey Jenner covered her modesty with a few well placed autumn leaves and Tess Coyle, Miss October hid behind a picture of Audrey Hepburn whom she adores.

It is 18 years since Tess was diagnosed. She has known Sandra since she was a child.

What Sandra forgot to tell her was that the calendar pictures involved stripping off.

"I only found that out on the morning of the photo-shoot," she laughed... there was no going back.

Miss November, Rhona Lavery chose jewellery, fur and most importantly a smile for her photograph.

They are all women of hope.

Their calendar which costs 8, or 10 euro in the Republic of Ireland, will be sold in Veritas shops and Marks & Spencer stores throughout Ireland to raise money for Altnagelvin Hospital's Breast Care Unit in Derry and the Marie Keating Foundation in the Republic.

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