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Mrs. Connecticut champions a healthy outlook

By Brian Hallenbeck

Publication: The Day

Published December 26. 2012 4:00AM   Updated December 26. 2012 7:06PM

Vanassa Sebastian rues the day her reign must end.

Crowned Mrs. Connecticut last February and a semifinalist in the Mrs. America competition six months later, the Ledyard woman has relished her roles as goodwill ambassador, fundraiser and advocate for causes she says "are near and dear to me - or to someone else."

Chief among those causes is breast cancer, which she has battled successfully since she was diagnosed with the disease in 2011.

In the last year, she's made dozens of promotional appearances for such organizations as the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Special Olympics and the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation, and she wants people to know she's available to keep making appearances right up until March 16, 2013. On that date, she'll crown her successor at the 2013 Mrs. Connecticut competition scheduled to take place for the third consecutive year at Foxwoods Resort Casino.

"I don't want it to end," she said of her reign. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Sebastian's beauty-pageant experiences are inextricably linked to the story of her bout with cancer, a story rife with irony and coincidence. After a fourth runner-up finish in the 2010 Mrs. Connecticut competition, she set her sights on the 2011 pageant, which was to be held in her hometown, at Foxwoods. Her husband, L. Brian Sebastian, a Mashantucket Pequot tribal member, is a director of entertainment for the casino. She is a member of the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Pleasant Point, Maine.

Weeks before the competition, Sebastian, who is in her early 40s, learned a lump she'd discovered in her right breast was cancerous. It was Jan. 15, 2011. Six weeks later, on Feb. 28, she had surgery — a lumpectomy - at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. A seven-week course of radiation treatments followed in May and June. Last December, a mammogram found her free of cancer.

"I feel really good," she said, looking ahead to another mammogram scheduled later this month.

Second opinion

The irony, Sebastian said, has to do with her profession. A certified registered nurse anesthetist, she was working after her diagnosis on a case with Dr. Vinod Pathy, a plastic surgeon who specializes in reconstructive surgery for women who've been treated for breast cancer. In May 2011, The Day published a story on cancer patients that included a photograph of Pathy and Sebastian conferring during an operation on another woman.

At the time, Sebastian was receiving radiation treatments.

"I'm doing all these breast reconstruction procedures, and here I am going through it (cancer) myself," Sebastian said.

After she felt the lump in her breast, a mammogram revealed a spiculated tumor. The radiologist advised her to find a surgeon.

She was told she'd need chemotherapy, radiation and a probable skin-sparing mastectomy.

"I was frightened," Sebastian said. "I kept hearing this subliminal message: 'Get a second opinion.' I thought, 'I'm in the business, I know.'"

Her Google research led her to Dr. Eric Winer at Harvard and Dana-Farber and the hope that she could avoid a mastectomy and chemotherapy, which she did.

Not surprisingly, the importance of seeking a second opinion is a big part of Sebastian's message to breast cancer patients.

"Why Dana-Farber? Because I wanted to go somewhere where that's all they treat," she said. "It's not that people around here aren't the best of the best, but at Dana-Farber they have a unit that specializes in breast cancer in young women - that's all they do.

"I didn't want to have any regrets."

Sebastian also extols the importance of early detection of the disease. In her own case, she said, months passed before she did anything about the lump she detected.

"It starts with self-examinations," she said. "This is not your grandmother's disease anymore. Women in their 20s are having the disease all over the country, and we know the incidence is particularly high in Connecticut. Early diagnosis is the key."

'It changes you'

For Sebastian, surviving cancer and competing in beauty pageants intersected in the need to maintain a healthy lifestyle. While her diagnosis and treatment kept her out of the 2011 Mrs. Connecticut competition, the 2012 pageant offered her a chance to pick up where she'd left off in 2010.

"It changes you," she said of competing. "It challenges you mentally and physically. You have to be in the best shape of your life to wear a bathing suit and 6-inch stilettos in front of hundreds of people you don't know."

She competed the second time with a much different attitude.

"The first time I was there to win, not to make friends," she said. "I wasn't interested in being fourth runner-up. The second time, I did it to challenge myself, to accomplish something. I wanted to be great at public speaking. I wanted to be poised and polished."

Sebastian said she also had a responsibility to be a role model for her 22-year-old daughter, Tyah Sebastian, who helped her fight through the anxiety and darkness that had accompanied her diagnosis.

"When I won, she was crying, and my husband jumped on stage," Sebastian said, describing a family scene that would be repeated on a larger scale in August at the Mrs. America competition in Tucson, Ariz.

Sebastian's entourage there would number 17, including family and friends, classmates from anesthesia school and members of her wedding party.

"It was a little embarrassing," she said. "Other contestants kidded me about having the biggest cheering section."

Sebastian's husband carried a huge sign through the audience, and her mother sowed beads on the Native American dress that earned Sebastian the pageant's Best Costume award.

Since then, she's been a particularly active Mrs. Connecticut, traveling the state as ambassador, fundraiser and advocate.

"You don't have to do it," she said. "I don't take anything for it. But I think it's important. You realize what an honor it is to hold the title."

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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