Breast Cancer Survivor Organizes Body Paint Photoshoot for Women with the Disease: ‘It Was Like a Therapy Session’

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Marquina Iliev-Piselli is a naturally upbeat, positive person – and her joyous attitude about life carried her through hours of breast cancer treatment over the last two years. Now in remission, the book marketer made it her goal to organize events that will help other breast cancer patients make it through their own hospital visits with the same sunny outlook.

“Having a positive attitude lifted up everyone around me,” Iliev-Piselli, 38, tells PEOPLE. “I don’t dread going to the hospital, but a lot of people do, so I’ll go back, and I’ll be the one who supports others.”

With the help of her hospital, New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Breast Center in New York City, Iliev-Piselli started the Women’s Empowerment Project, and plans to put on two projects a year for patients. Her first idea was to cover breast cancer patients and survivors in body paint and put on a photoshoot, and seven other women signed up.

“I can’t know before it happens what the vibe will be like, because it’s art, and it’s happening. But it was so much better and more fun than I even imagined,” Iliev-Piselli says.

The day started with each woman picking out a design and sitting for two to three hours of body painting by artists Ashleigh Alexandria, Ralph Serrano and Avilda Whittmore-Walker.

“We would paint something that was meaningful to us,” Iliev-Piselli explains. “One woman had a rose coming out of her chest; another woman chose a phoenix rising from the ashes because she felt like she was reborn. Another woman chose a dragon, because she races dragon boats, and it’s one of the things that makes her feel most powerful. There was this idea of their inside self being portrayed on their outside self.”

(Iliev-Piselli getting body painted)

She says that when you deal with breast cancer, you lose any kind of love or appreciation for your body. Transforming it with body paint changed that.

“It makes you look at your body in a new way, a body that you hadn’t looked at in awhile, or if you did, you were critical. But you weren’t critical this time,” Iliev-Piselli says. “Having something beautiful done, and looking at your body and accepting it is very important.”

The women felt invigorated a second time when they started posing, and some even went out to Central Park for a second shoot.

“I made them take a few photos first, and then look at them. They’d see the photos and their eyes would light up – their whole expression changes. They look so different from their idea in their head of themselves,” Iliev-Piselli says. “And they would say things like, ‘Wow, that’s me? I look amazing!’ and then they would be so much more energized! So many of the pictures were us just dancing around, and I love it.”

One of the best parts though, Iliev-Piselli says, was getting body painted together.

“I didn’t realize that having an open room where everyone was painted together would be like a therapy session,” she says. “There were women who hadn’t ever talked about their cancer to other survivors. That ended up being one of the more powerful moments.”

Now Iliev-Piselli is excited to take on more projects, and help more women through their treatment.

“I want to take women from wherever they’re at mentally and get them out of it to something more positive,” she says.