It was her first chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, and Marquina Iliev-Piselli was trying to think positively as she watched one powerful drug after another be pumped into a port in her chest at Weill Cornell Breast Center in New York.
“It has to work. This has to work,” the 36-year-old wife and mother from Brooklyn kept telling herself, even as she worried about the drugs’ harsh side effects. With her husband, Dan, by her side, her thoughts soon turned to their son Lorenzo, 3, and a long list of what-ifs.
“I knew my body was going to go through a lot of changes and I was terrified,” she tells PEOPLE. “I just kept thinking, ‘I can’t just sit here. I’ll go crazy! I need a project!'” So the digital marketer decided to orchestrate her own glamorous photo shoots during her five remaining chemo sessions, starting in November 2015. “I needed a way to transform this process and make it better for myself,” she explains.
With a little help from a photographer friend and a makeup artist pal, plus a generous donation of dresses from Rent the Runway and permission from her oncologist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, Iliev-Piselli found a way to face chemo with style and grace. She called it the Glam Chemo Project. Initially she posed without smiling and stayed close to the chemo chair, changing into a new gown only when it was time for the nurses to switch the bag hanging on the IV pole next to her.
“I was really worried in the beginning because I didn’t want to make light of a serious topic,” Iliev-Piselli says. “I also didnâ€™t want to get in the nurses’ way, but they were incredibly kind,” she says. Her photographer and friend Casey Fatchett convinced Iliev-Piselli to just be herself. Soon, she was striking the poses that she uses in air guitar competitions, though she couldn’t pull off her signature cartwheel ending in a split. “I just do silly things to have a good time,” says Iliev-Piseli. I decided to have a good time with this.”