Four years ago, Ayanna Z. Kalasunas received distressing news – the breast cancer with which she had been diagnosed had spread to her liver. Doctors could see the frightening development in the results of an MRI.
A diagnosis of Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer “can feel life-shattering,” she wrote. But she steadied herself by studying the disease, and volunteering with Living Beyond Breast Cancer, a Bala Cynwyd nonprofit known as LBBC. She shared her experiences, supported others battling cancer, and served as a consultant on the organization’s national board of directors.
“She proactively became an advocate for women fighting the illness, and worked tirelessly and selflessly to help others in need,” said a family friend in an appreciation.
On Monday, May 15, Mrs. Kalasunas, 37, of South Philadelphia, died of complications from the disease at Penn Hospice at Rittenhouse. Her mother, Richelle Phillips, had died of breast cancer in October 2015. Both women had counseled cancer survivors.
“I do this all in her honor,” Mrs. Kalasunas wrote after her mother died. “She was someone who spent her life improving the lives of others through education, support and community. I am so proud to continue her legacy with LBBC."
Mrs. Kalasunas and her efforts garnered attention. Last Nov. 12, she was one of three recipients of the Going Beyond Award, presented at the LBBC Butterfly Ball in Philadelphia. Her fellow recipients were Jenny Burkholder and Judy Weinstein. The trio “used their personal experiences with breast cancer to help and inspire others,” the nonprofit said in making the award.
While fighting cancer, Mrs. Kalasunas worked as the manager of direct operations and communications for Urban Outfitters in Philadelphia. Before that, she was a J. Crew store director in Washington and then Philadelphia. She had gotten her start in retail as a store manager with Urban Outfitters in the early 2000s, according to her resumé.
Born in Philadelphia, she graduated from Friends’ Central School. She spent a year studying at the University of Pittsburgh, where she met fellow student Orit Ben-Ari. “She was the ying to my yang,” Ben-Ari said. “She was the keeper of my good stories, my secrets. She knew the best and worst in everybody, and loved them in spite of everything. She made people feel comfortable, even in lousy situations.”
Ben-Ari said her friend died too soon. “Over the last three years, she really had found her purpose in life. She had just begun to leave her footprint,” Ben-Ari said.
In 2014, she married Mike Kalasunas, whom she met while out on the town in Philadelphia. He supported her work on behalf of cancer survivors, even when it meant putting on a tuxedo and accompanying her to a fundraising gala.
Kalasunas recalled his wife as having the ability to live in the moment and bring out the best in others.
“I am so grateful for the four years we got to share after her diagnosis,” he said. “That pushed us to unconditional love and strength, and I feel that those two feed off each other. She taught me that you can’t change the past – you can only influence the future if you keep control of right now.”
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Kalasunas is survived by her father, James Phillips; a brother; and nieces and nephews.
Plans for services were pending.
Donations may be made via https://www.plumfund.com/medical-fund/ayannas-comfort-care-fund.