TARPON SPRINGS — When SaltyGirl Beauty founder Sarah Kelly went searching for six women to be the namesakes of the company's new lip gloss line, she wanted to cast a wide net.
"We wanted the women to represent all women, for them to be diverse in age, location and stories," Kelly, a 40-year-old breast cancer survivor who founded SaltyGirl in 2016 after learning about the ingredients in everyday products that are considered to be harmful, said from her home in Kennebunk, Maine. "The six women we chose are from Maine, Florida, North Carolina, Illinois and Texas, who we felt best represented what SaltyGirl Beauty is all about — empowering women."
After receiving a letter from the daughter-in-law of a 64-year-old Tarpon Springs woman who was a two-time cancer survivor, Kelly knew she'd found a qualified candidate.
"I thought it was really awesome she had such a special relationship with her daughter-in-law," Kelly said of Dotti Wagner, a New Jersey native who moved to the area in 2008 and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2012 and breast cancer in 2017. "And she's fought two types of cancer, her husband fought cancer. She sounded like an amazing fighter, caregiver and fundraiser. She's such a warrior, in my mind."
Wagner didn't live to see the official debut of SaltyGirl's Dotti lip gloss on July 29, National Lipstick Day. She died on July 3, according to her son, Eric Brookfield.
Wagner was a New Jersey native who worked in the insurance industry for decades before she was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2012, Brookfield said. She became active in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society while battling the disease, and it was in remission when she developed breast cancer two years ago.
"That cancer went into and stayed in remission, but metastatic breast cancer arose sometime in late 2017," Brookfield said. "She was able to get it into remission for a short while, but complications arose within the last round of treatment, in early 2019."
Wagner's husband of 41 years, Ken, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in late 2017, and they have been helping with his difficult recovery ever since.
"While the radiation effectively removed the masses around the esophagus, the side effect was a crippling of his swallow muscles," Brookfield said. "As a result, my dad has been on a feeding tube since then."
After being diagnosed with Stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer in 2015, when she was 36 and 32 weeks pregnant, Kelly began looking for reasons behind the unexpected diagnosis. Stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer is more likely to spread and don't respond well to standard hormonal-based treatments, doctors say.
"There was no family history, no genetic link, it wasn't estrogen-positive, meaning I didn't have any of the three known hormonal markers that lead to this type of cancer in the body," she said. "So, when that happened, I tried to figure out why."
With help from her sister, Leah, an oncology nurse, Kelly began researching the ingredient of products she put on her skin, believing it could lead to the cause of her cancer, and what they found affirmed her belief.
"We saw a link in what we're putting on our bodies, and that was something we could control," she said, adding, "when you lose your hair from chemo, you lose your identity. I lost party of my femininity. Leah brought a fun, colorful lipstick and it helped me feel like me again."
SaltyGirl now has five core cosmetic products, plus a body care line. The company stages seminars, retreats and workshops dedicated to spreading the word about the potential dangers of petroleum-based products.
Kelly said 10 percent of SaltyGirl's profits goes to the Foundation4Love, a Make a Wish type nonprofit for adult cancer patients, and she said the lip gloss naming contest was a way to honor others who have persevered and showed strength in the face of pain and adversity.
"We name our products after badass women, and Dotti certainly qualified," she said.
According to Eric when his wife, Alana, saw the SaltyGirl contest, she immediately wanted to nominate Dotti.
"In February of this year, my wife Alana entered my Mother into a SaltyGirl sponsored contest, describing her heroism facing cancer three times while being an advocate for others, LLS, my dad and herself," he said. "She always had a positive attitude that was contagious."
"We're honored SaltyGirl chose my mother's namesake, thus continuing her legacy a bit longer and providing means to share a bit of her story," he wrote, adding, "It's hard to process everything right now, but we're truly touched."