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Former fashion model Sue Miller hosts a Day of Caring for breast cancer survivors

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In 1971, 34-year-old Sue Miller had a great modeling career, a husband and three children -- and breast cancer. While shopping for a prosthetic, Miller was asked if she would model for a fashion show. Angry at first, she decided to take the job, and found other cancer survivors to join her on the runway to show that survivors were just as beautiful. That was the start of a Day of Caring. This year will mark the thirtieth year for the Day of Caring Conference and Survivors Fashion Show, sponsored by Macy's. In advance of the event, set for Saturday, April 26, Miller took a few minutes from her busy schedule to answer our questions.

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Westword: Tell us about yourself. Where are you from originally and how long have you lived in Denver?

Sue Miller: I was born March 7, 1934 in Kansas City. Because of my dad's work we moved many times, but I consider Oklahoma City, where I lived in my teenage years, as my home. I married when I was nineteen years old to Alan Miller and moved to Denver. I am eighty years old!

How did you get into the modeling business, and who are some of the people/company's you worked for?

When I was thirteen I was 5' 7" and was working in a store during the Christmas season gift wrapping and they needed a model for a TV ad. So I applied and I was just a "natural." I received an offer when I was seventeen to be a model at Neiman Marcus in Dallas, but my parents would not give me permission to move. After I moved to Denver, I modeled for John Robert Powers Agency and JF Images.

How has modeling changed since you were in the business?

When I was modeling, we went to "Go See's", where you read scripts and showed off your figure for an upcoming show. Today -- and it has been awhile since I modeled -- I think the competition is tougher, I was tall for women then. Today the average models are over 5' 7". Also, during my day if you were known at the store and they needed a model, you did it for the store. Today every one belongs to an agency.

What advice would you give the model of today?

Hold on to what makes you, you. There is always another job! How do you think Denver is doing when it comes to fashion?

Denver, like most cities, has those who know how to dress. They can walk into Target and come out looking like a million dollars, and those who have the money to buy gorgeous clothes can look like a million dollars. Years ago I would have said, "If you want to really dress and see what the newest fashions are, go to New York." But a few years ago I went to Lincoln Center to see an opera and there were people in jeans, flip flops, you name it. So I think fashion is in the eyes of the beholder. My teenage grandchildren think they are "super" neat in their cutoffs and flip flops. Someday the circle will come back around and a coat and tie will "really be cool." Tell us how Day of Caring came to be.

In 1971, I found a lump in my breast. I was 34 years old, had three children and a husband and a great modeling career. I had a bi-lateral mastectomy and that began a journey I will never forget. On the Saturday after my operation, I was on the cover of the fashion section of the Denver Post. I lost my job as a professional model because no one wanted to look at the mastectomy scars. People thought cancer was catching and everyone thought I was going to die.

All of this misinformation was floating around out there after my operation. I went to a store to get a prosthesis and the lady said to me, "I am doing a fashion show, will you do it for me?" I got angry and stomped out of the store, got into my car and decided I would do it but only if I could use models who had breast cancer. I finally convinced her and I found five other ladies who would do it, and after that show we took the fashion show whereever people would ask us: bridge clubs, lunch places. With that, I made a card that said women who have had mastectomies are still beautiful, vital women and cancer is not catching. There is much more to the story but that is what finally led to a Day of Caring.

How many people has Day of Caring served over the years?

I don't know how many people there have been. Probably thousands; Kate would probably be able to answer that more accurately. [Kate Van Daele, executive director of Day of Caring, told us the nonprofit has served over 15,000 people.]

How did the Survivors Fashion Show become a part of Day of Caring?

A few years after I was doing the small shows, I decided that I needed to reach more people with this information. I went to the Jewish Community Center and they gave me their auditorium, helped me send out invitations to their mailing list. I pulled all of my resources together. Sweetness and company did the music, JCC gave me the decorations for the stage and someone did the sweets. That evening as I stood at the top of the auditorium, I thought to myself, "What is going to come of this?" And then I heard laughing and giggling in the dressing room

I went down the stairs and peered around the corner: one model had thrown a prosthesis to another model and she said, "Try this on, it's bigger and your dress will fit better." The room was filled with hope, fun and looking at the future. I knew then that it really did not matter how many came: I had founded a "club" for people who could share, cry and laugh. As it happens, that audience numbered 400 -- and in the audience was a nurse named Joan Camp who was out there trying to give more in-depth information. We joined together and did the first Day of Caring one year later, in 1981.

How can people get involved?

People who want to volunteer, model or just come to learn need to contact Kate Van Daele, our executive director, at kate@dayofcaringcolorado.org

You recently celebrated your eightieth birthday. As a breast cancer survivor, what message would you like to share with others?

Cancer is different today than it was back in 1971. It's not actually cancer that is different but there are so many options, such different opinions. My advice to anyone, man or woman ,is to find a doctor you can trust, one that makes you feel that you are being heard. The internet does provide information, but it is impersonal and each person needs their own advocate.

The Sue Miller Day of Caring Conference runs from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, April 26 at the Marriott Tech Center, 4900 South Syracuse Street. Registration is $50; go to Day of Caring.org.

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