All this week, Decatur resident Brittanie Brooks has worn dresses and skirts.
Her No Pants challenge is an awareness campaign (check for the #NoPantsForOvarianCysts and #NoPantsForOvarianCancer hashtags on social media) for Illinois' Ovarian Cyst Awareness Week, which began Sept. 11 and goes through Sunday.
Before I go further, a brief disclosure. I got to know Brittanie a couple years ago when she was a public radio intern through the University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program.
In January, Ms. Brooks began to reign as Miss Black Illinois.
She shrugs off suggestions that pageants are outdated beauty contests.
"I've been competing since 2009 and a lot of times what people don't see is the work that leads up to the date of competition. With television all we really see is what happens on stage. But a lot of times, it's the work behind the scenes ... there's an interview, a private interview, with the judges," she says, describing the panel at the national competition in Washington D.C. this summer as "firing questions back and forth at you press conference style. So you have to prepare for anything. They can ask you anything in those interviews."
She says she was asked:
-We know who you are in the light, who are you behind the scenes, in the dark?
-What will your legacy be?
-What would you tell your teenage self if you could?
Contestants also took part in a fitness competition, or what people think of as the swimsuit competition.
"Not everyone can get on a stage in a swimsuit in front of all these people. So you at least want to look your best and present your best self. So lot of girls are spending hours in the gym leading up to it. They're lifting weights, they're eating healthy. They're doing what a lot of people aren't doing, which is getting healthy and trying to present their best person," she says. "Also, there is talent. And for me, I played the piano. I have been playing since I was six years old ... I love playing the piano, so it felt good to leave it out on the stage, a craft I have been working towards all my life."
Brooks says that's why pageants are still relevant: She says they're helping participants become better: physically, mentally, and artistically.
I asked why a special pageant is needed for black women.
She talks about a basketball game she went to a couple weeks back. She wore her sash, and a girl who was about five or six years old was thrilled to get their picture together.
"Her mother told me she competes in pageants herself, but she was so discouraged because the winners did not look like her. So she didn't think that she was qualified enough to compete in the pageant," Brooks says.
She says a lot of women of color aren't aren't winning pageants.
"So Miss Black USA represents women as a whole, as African American women and as women of color. And so that gets us an even playing field from the jump. We are representing African American women across the country. There was a huge movement called 'Black Girls Reign' that promotes women in pageantry, black women in pageantry, and we need to make sure that we are seeing ourselves as winners. That's the best part of Miss Black USA. Regardless of who wins, they are going to be a woman of color."
She choose a platform of raising awareness of ovarian cysts and cancer, as she's battling with the former.
"In high school I ran track and one day I had a huge pain in my pelvis. I went to the doctor, to find out what was wrong. Eventually I found out I had something on my ovary. Like a black mass. They didn't know what it was. They wanted to do surgery right then and there ... I got a second opinion. Found out it was an ovarian cyst. I had never heard of an ovarian cyst, I really didn't think about my ovaries at all. This was in 2010. It was about the size of plum. And your ovary is the size of a walnut. So it was bigger than the ovary, this cyst was. This can wrap around your fallopian tube, and wrap around and kill the ovary. I had surgery and it was removed. Fast forward two years later, and it comes back. This time I'm a sophomore in college."
This tumor was large, so much so that she says people thought she was pregnant. She had to have surgery again, to remove it.
A cyst then came back last summer.
"Okay enough is enough. My doctor now wants to remove my right ovary completely, cause I keep producing cysts. It's a very common; it's a very common procedure for women who have ovarian cancer as well. So that's why I try to advocate for ovarian health altogether. Because the systems for a cyst and cancer are very similar."
Brooks says women should know the symptoms.
-pain in the pelvic area
-loss of appetite, or feeling full
-pain during intercourse
-a deeper voice, extra facial hair, other signs of hormonal changes (as cysts can be made of hair and skin cells)
She says often, women with ovarian cancer delaying going to the doctor until it's too late, believing that it's cramps or typical signs of menstruation. Wait until the cancer is in the third of fourth stage, and survival chances are in the single digits.
Catch it early and the chances of survival are, she says, around 90 percent.
Bear in mind a typical gynecological exam or Pap smear won't detect a cyst or ovarian cancer.
"If it's menstruation, it will kind of get dismissed: 'Oh, take an ibuprofen for this.' If it lasts longer than two weeks, something's going on. And you need to see somebody and let them know, 'Hey. I think you need to do this. I think I need an ultrasound.' ... Don't worry about the cost. Your health is more important. And as women we put our health aside to take care of house or home all the time. And that's fine, too, but we need to make sure we know what's going on with our ovaries and we need to know what's going on with our health," she says.
So ladies, feel free to wear a dress this weekend. Be aware of the signs of ovarian cancer and cysts. And if you notice any symptoms, book a doctor's appointment.