Peggie Sherry has battled cancer twice and knows it poisons the mind as well as the body.
She believes the antidote is fun.
In 2004, she started the Faces of Courage Foundation to provide free, fun daytime excursions, evening outings and weekend camps for women with cancer, and children with cancer and blood diseases.
A year and a half ago, Sherry began a unique fundraising project: "Bodies of Courage," a calendar featuring abstract photos of breast cancer survivors' scarred bodies.
Body-painting artist Lisa Scholder of Tampa decorated the women's skin with brightly colored designs and then photographed them to illustrate each month of the year.
The women discovered that the bodies they once thought were unappealing were, in fact, beautiful, said Sherry, who's also a model.
"We found that the process, for each person, had this emotional cleansing; it became very personal, very intimate, having someone paint on your nude body," she said. "It had a profound impact."
Sherry's current fundraising project is a book of full-color photos and stories of painted women who have battled various forms of cancer.
Sherry, Scholder and face and body painter Lorrin Wagner of Valrico recruited 12 painters, men and women, and 12 female models for the book. They enlisted the help of Rich Montalbano, a Faces of Courage volunteer photographer, to shoot the photos.
They gathered last month in an empty storefront provided by BubbaQue's in a Brandon shopping center. They set up drop cloths and tables for paints and taped translucent pink paper over the windows for privacy.
The women chatted with each other in the open space as artists applied colorful designs with paint brushes and air brushes on the human canvases. The painting took three to six hours per model.
Some of the women felt an initial shyness about their nakedness that gave way to a feeling of overcoming, empowerment and comfort.
"This is so wonderful," said model Sandy Callin of Oldsmar, moved by the camaraderie of shared experiences with other survivors being painted.
"Only people who have been through it understand things like, when your hair falls out, it hurts. Here you don't have to explain it, and you don't feel bad talking about it."
Maria Singer of Ruskin felt liberated after modeling for another breast cancer photo project after her double mastectomy. Later, when asked at a Faces of Courage camp, she agreed to help Sherry with her book.
Body painter Chonya Alvarez of Wesley Chapel eagerly volunteered for this, because she has several cancer survivors in her family.
Breast cancer survivor Paloma De Jesus of Spring Hill saw the "Bodies of Courage" calendar at camp, thought it was beautiful and signed up to be painted for the book.
Although her reconstructed breasts could not feel the light, feathery strokes of the paintbrush used by Amy Kaiser of Sarasota, a grateful De Jesus quipped, "At least my breasts aren't saggy anymore!"
Cat Camp, senior library clerk at the University of South Florida by day, body painter by night, applied bold, curvy, primary colors to the skin of Andrea Adair of Lakeland.
Adair, who works in Brandon, gladly became a human canvas for the sake of Faces of Courage camp.
"Camp was so awesome," she said. "It's like the biggest pajama party I've ever been to."
The weekends aren't focused on cancer and wellness discussions, she said. Instead, they offer diverse activities. The participants make jewelry, kayak, visit fortune tellers, enjoy the healing touch of Reiki practitioners, dip snacks in a chocolate fountain and dance.
Nobody asks what happened to your hair or why you're tired all the time. Fellow campers understand.
"It's nice to leave the diagnosis at home and go out and have fun," Adair said.
Breast cancer survivor and model Carol Connelly of Oldsmar described her ordeal with cancer in a telephone interview prior to the painting session.
"I was angry, very stressed and felt betrayed. I had no insurance and lost my house to foreclosure. I got rid of my ex-husband and raised my two kids alone," the 52-year-old said.
Her doctor suggested she attend the Faces of Courage camp and do something to help others.
At camp, Sherry addressed the emotional issues, what's going on inside.
Connelly hopes this book will help people understand that your life isn't over once you get breast cancer.
"With the painting, it's not about who will or won't take their clothes off," she said. "You see all the scars, the deformities, the things the prosthetics cannot cover. You see color. It puts a smile on people's faces. It creates an element of beauty."
Sherry wants the new book to be available at the Faces of Courage spring fashion show and through national booksellers. She is seeking a publisher.