Penny Burkhalter Serves in Style as Honorary Chair of 2014’s Rock the Runway

Ask anyone and they can give you the name of a friend or loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer. But being diagnosed with cancer during pregnancy only happens to about one in a thousand women, and for Penny Burkhalter, the odds weren’t in her favor. In 2003, at 32 years old and four months pregnant, Burkhalter received the news no woman ever wants to hear: she had breast cancer.

“I thought breast cancer was an old person disease. Older women get cancer. Not women who are 30. Not me,” Burkhalter says of her staggering diagnosis. “I was pregnant and had a 2-year-old at home. I had to survive.”

The hormonal changes that occur in the body during pregnancy can accelerate the growth of the cancer, so Burkhalter’s doctors encouraged her to move quickly. She had a single mastectomy five days after her diagnosis and began chemotherapy immediately.

“It was so, so scary,” Burkhalter says. “I wanted to wait until after I had the baby, but the doctors thought I should have the cancer removed as soon as possible.” She recalls the way others stared at her when she walked into the chemotherapy room for the first time. “You could see it on their faces,” she laughs. “They were all thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that girl is pregnant.’”

Burkhalter received five months of chemotherapy during her second and third trimesters. “At the time, there hadn’t been a lot of studies about what the long-term side effects of chemo are for babies,” she says. “I was through my second trimester, and the doctors assured me that Anna Grace was safe and secure in there.”

It’s been almost 11 years since Anna Grace was born, happy and healthy, and though Burkhalter’s personal battle may be over, she’s never stopped fighting for others. Over the last decade, Burkhalter has dedicated her time to organizations such as the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute at UAMS, Susan G. Komen and Runway for a Cause, as well as one-on-one mentoring.

“People will call me out of the blue and say, ‘I know someone who’s going through what you went through.’ I talk with people, I help them make decisions about what they should do and what their options are. For women, our physicality is so strongly tied to our emotions, and cancer and chemo change you so much physically. It’s tough. People have a million questions about those changes, and I try to be light and funny about the whole thing. I’ll always answer the questions that other people are afraid to talk about.”

Recently, Burkhalter received a call from Allyson Pittman and Heather Owens, co-chairs of this year’s Rock the Runway. Pittman, whose mother Stacy Sells is a breast cancer survivor, and Owens, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 28, teamed up to launch the event last year as a way to raise funds for patient support services at the Cancer Institute at UAMS as well as Owens’ own Fighting Fancy, a nonprofit that provides bags of comforting items to female cancer patients between the ages of 15 and 39.

Pittman’s mother, Sells, served as honorary chair at last year’s inaugural event, which went from an idea to a huge success in record time. “Last year, I don’t think we were prepared for how big Rock the Runway would be,” Owens says. “Once ticket sales started coming in, we thought, ‘Uh-oh, how do we accommodate all these people?’”

This year, Burkhalter will act as honorary chair at the event. “Being a young survivor,” Owens says, “Penny and I sort of had the same story and feelings about everything we’d been through — from the cancer, to losing our hair.”

“Penny is someone who has been through it young. She has her daughters, Johnna and Anna Grace,” Pittman adds. “The first time we met with her, everything just fit. We talked for an hour.”

Educating young women is an important focus to Pittman and Owens, and a message they hope to convey at Rock the Runway. “The event is for all ages, of course, but we want women to understand that cancer isn’t something that only happens to older women,” Pittman explains. Local boutiques will take to the runway, showcasing edgy looks and international designers, and each shop will have a survivor model. “We have two groups of sisters among our 13 survivor models. All four women are under 40, and both groups’ mothers had breast cancer as well. When I met with these sisters and chatted with them, I heard the same things I’d heard from Heather, Penny and my mom in terms of what they had been through, what they’d felt.”

This year’s Rock the Runway will take place Thursday, June 19. A tent at the River Market Pavilion will open at 6:30 p.m. with a DJ and cocktails, including last year’s signature drink, the Pink Fancy. The fashion show and live auction will begin at 7:30 p.m. and feature looks from 13 local boutiques. The tent will be draped with botanical-inspired décor, which will create a striking scene, since guests are encouraged to wear black and white. After the show, everyone will cross the street to Cache Restaurant for an after-party and silent auction.

Auction items range from a sports bra autographed by the cast of “Duck Dynasty” to One Direction concert tickets, but many of the items are experience-based and appropriate for men, women and children.

“The great thing about Rock the Runway,” Burkhalter says, “is that it benefits all cancers, not just breast cancer.” Burkhalter is a huge fan of Fighting Fancy’s cause, and says she wishes something like that would have been available to her 10 years ago. “When I was going through all of this, I sometimes felt like I was in my own little world,” she admits. “I had so much love and support from my husband John, my family and friends. But I’m so thankful that I had a friend who had just gone through the process too, because otherwise, I wouldn’t have had anyone to reach out to who truly understood what I was going through. Having someone your age that you can relate to makes such a difference.”

Rock the Runway
When: 6:30 p.m., Thursday, June 19
Fashion Show: River Market Pavilion | After Party: Cache Restaurant
Tickets and Info:

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