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Bosom Buddies

Kumu hula ‘Iwalani Tseu, who has beaten two types of cancer, is full of positive energy that rubs off on everyone she meets. And she’s gathered a group she calls ‘bosom buddies’ — fellow breast cancer survivors and their supporters — to pose mostly sans clothing for a new book, with a fundraiser planned Oct. 22

That’s how Kumu hula ‘Iwalani Tseu refers to fellow breast cancer survivors and their supporters, who posed sans clothes for a book

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Tseu's home is filled with wonderful pieces of art and history
ANTHONY CONSILLIO PHOTO

There’s a term of affection kumu hula ‘Iwalani Tseu uses to describe women who willingly chose to bare it all in portraits meant to raise awareness about breast cancer: “bosom buddies.”

A two-time cancer survivor, Tseu hopes to soon publish her coffee table-style book Magnificent Women of Hawai’i: Making a Difference, showcasing the portraits of Hawaii’s brave matriarchs baring it all, shot by Marc Schechter.

These bosom buddies all have been affected by cancer in some way, whether they’re struggling with it themselves or they’re a family member or friend of someone diagnosed with the terrible disease.

Cancer has proven time and time again that it has no boundaries. It cares not the color of your skin. It doesn’t care how old you are or if you’re rich or poor.

The fact that her bosom buddies offered themselves with no hesitation was remarkable to Tseu, who was hit with cervical cancer 30 years ago, and in 2005 with breast cancer.

“I had my surgery (in October 2005),” she says. “While I was lying there, I just thought, ‘How ignorant am I?'”

It gave her an opportunity to reflect, which prompted her to learn as much as she possibly could in life. Through much research she discovered Hawaiians and Filipinos have the highest rate of breast cancer, with other Asian ethnicities following close behind.

“My children are all of that,” says Tseu.

That’s when her vision started.

“I called these wonderful women whom I admired all my life,” she says. “I needed permission to go forward.”

She presented her story and vision to create a calendar or book depicting strong women of Hawaii banding together for one purpose. The decision to create a book resulted from the fact that the sheer amount of women who showed up to have their portraits taken exceeded what could be put in a calendar.

She started with Agnes “Aunty Agnes” Cope, who offered her blessing on the project and allowed Tseu to present her case to the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center board.

“She said, ‘You promise me, ‘Iwalani, one thing. That I am one of your models,'” recalls Tseu. “That was the best gift I ever got.”

From there, Tseu continued her journey, asking permission from notables in the Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Portuguese communities, as permission and respect are vital elements of her family life.

With no hesitation, women came from all over the island to take part in Tseu’s vision.

“When someone just bares their most prized possessions and asks how they can help, it’s a healing force,” she says. “Love conquers all, you know.”

At first, funds were not there, and Tseu had eight years to ponder and pray about her project because she wanted to make sure she represented these amazing women well.

“I want to respect them as they need to be respected and honored to show that what they did for me will go down in history,” she adds.

One of Tseu’s students, Tasha Chang, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, works at Pictures Plus and helped form a relationship so that Tseu could display the photographs at the Kahala, Pearl Highlands and Ward locations through October in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Tseu unveiled a “Show Everything” gallery at Pictures Plus at Ward Warehouse in June in honor of her friend Paulette Kahalepuna (also a bosom buddy), who died last month.

“Her (Kahalepuna’s) last words to me were, ‘Iwa, be fearless. Run with this. Be our voice, and thank you for being so brave,'” recalls Tseu with tears in her eyes.