Fighting Breast Cancer by Finding Hidden Warriors | I'm Taking Charge

Fighting Breast Cancer by Finding Hidden Warriors

Fighting Breast Cancer by Finding Hidden Warriors

Who knew…playing dress up can give you power, and it’s possibly one of the easiest things you can do to help heal yourself when you’re fighting breast cancer.


The secondmost popular TED Talk of all time, with almost 35 million views, is by Amy Cuddy (TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas through short, powerful talks). Cuddy, a Harvard Business School social psychologist, said in her talk, “a person can, by assuming two simple one-minute poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful.”

In a study she conducted with two collaborators in 2010, Cuddy saw evidence that power poses lower cortisol, a stress hormone. The same study also showed that power posers experienced elevations in testosterone, and increased the feelings of power and tolerance for risk.


This simple premise was one of the main inspirations behind Hidden Warriors, a nonprofit organization whose innovative workshop increases self-esteem and empowers women who have been affected by cancer. Founder and president Marlene Sarli created the Hidden Warrior Workshop, and works alongside her mother, Mayra Marino, the other inspiration for Hidden Warriors.


We talked to both Marlene and her mother Mayra about Hidden Warriors and what it means to help these “cancer warriors” unleash their inner strength.

fighting breast cancer

Marlene and Mayra (photo credit, JW Perkins Photography)

I’m Taking Charge: Why headpieces and crowns?


Marlene Sarli: I was moving through a dark & depressed period in 2012 when I very randomly had the opportunity to try on some headpieces and crowns that my aunt had in storage. Let’s just say that the experience transformed me in many ways.


I did not understand why I suddenly felt so amazing after trying these on, but later understood that each crown shifted my body posture into a “power pose” without my knowledge. My background is in behavior modification in fearful animals, so I am very experienced in body language and fear reduction.  Even still, it took me some time to connect the dots. Watching the very popular TED talk by Amy Cuddy on power posing was the “a-ha!” moment for me. In it, she talks about how taking up lots of space with your body actually has affects on your hormones, feelings, actions and environmental reactions.


I’m Taking Charge: Your mother Mayra had a big influence on the creation of Hidden Warriors…

Marlene Sarli: When my mother was diagnosed with her second cancer experience, I struggled to find ways to strengthen her. I had a vague idea of getting some crowns and putting them on my mother to make her feel better, as a kind of a therapeutic costume experiment. For months, I assumed that this idea was silly and unworthy of sharing. I was wrong! As soon as I shared the idea out loud, it grew wings and took off. My mother and I have created a workshop model whose focus is reducing fear in and empowering women who are moving through cancer experiences. Hidden Warriors is now a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that has held Warrior Makeover Workshops in New York City and Los Angeles.


I’m Taking Charge: Mayra, can you share a bit about your cancer story?


Mayra Marino: I was first diagnosed with skin cancer in 2008, and then breast cancer stage 1 in 2012.  My skin cancer was minor, but scary nonetheless, and it was removed quickly.  My breast cancer was diagnosed in 2012 and completely changed my life forever.  I was always vigilant about my health, eating healthy, exercising and getting frequent checkups and breast screenings.  I discovered my breast tumor during a self-exam.  At first my doctor downplayed it since I had just been cleared by a mammogram a few months before.  I insisted she send me for additional screenings (MRI and ultrasound) and a referral to a breast surgeon who diagnosed me with Stage 1 breast cancer.  I believe that had I not insisted on further testing, I may not be alive today.  


I’m Taking Charge: How did you find inner strength during your battle.


Mayra Marino: After the initial shock, my survival instincts took over, and I knew I had to stay alive for my daughter who is my whole world!


I’m Taking Charge: Marlene, what did you learn from your mother’s experience, and how did you apply it to Hidden Warriors?


Marlene Sarli: I learned that any act of love, no matter how small, has the potential to bring healing to the person it is directed at. It could be as small as a smile or a thought, and these things have a direct effect on our environment. Our thoughts affect our emotions, our emotions affect our actions, and our actions affect the reactions we get from our environment. For this reason, it benefits all of us to pay attention to our thoughts.


Hidden Warriors provides alternatives to fearful thinking. Half of our workshop model focuses on introducing various tools like power posing, meditation and gratitude exercises to create new, strengthening thoughts around cancer. The other half focuses on a visual transformation so that each Warrior can see themselves in a completely different and powerful context. This helps create new thoughts of strength.

fighting breast cancer

photo credit: Jason Goodrich

I’m Taking Charge: How did you feel the first time you put on one of the headdresses and did a power pose? Did you feel silly, or did you immediately feel different?


Mayra Marino: When we conducted the very first Hidden Warriors workshop in 2014, I was full of energy and excitement, not just in anticipation of my own makeover, but more for the Warrior women who attended.  I knew our Hidden Warriors project was a success from the very moment our workshop started and our warriors started arriving.  

During my own transformation, I was nervous, excited, tearful, jubilant and full of love!  The minute my makeup was done and the stylist had completed my outfit, my headdress was the last piece to go on.  The minute they finished, I instantly felt like another person: powerful, beautiful, magical, strong!  and then the photographer started clicking away!  I felt like a movie star!  Everyone was cheering!  I couldn’t stop the tears!  It was truly an incredible experience! I felt “high” even a few weeks after and since then, my entire outlook on life and how I show love for others has forever changed.

fighting breast cancer

Face On by Tamara

Marlene Sarli: Some of the women are naturally introverted, but we create a safe space so that they can step into their most powerful selves. We go through bonding and gratitude exercises lead by an Occupational Therapist or Social Worker in the first part of the workshop. After this, there is a mindfulness meditation led by a yoga instructor, who also teaches them how to power pose and open up their body language, causing changes in hormone levels, feelings and actions. When each Warrior is in front of the camera, we play their favorite, most empowering songs that they choose prior. Also, my mother, Mayra’s excitement is infectious. You can typically find her right behind the photographer, cheering as loud as possible. Not to be forgotten are all of the Collaborators, who are so happy to be working on this project that their energy creates a magical space which makes it much easier to let go of fear and anxiety. the second half of the Workshop is a party!


I’m Taking Charge: What happens to women after the workshop?


Marlene Sarli: We hope that the women who are transformed at the workshop incorporate the Workshop tools into their daily lives in order to reduce fearful thoughts and create new thoughts, which shift moods, actions and reactions in their environments.  We also are in love with the idea of tapping into their “Hidden Warrior”-selves, and showing them what that powerful self looks like.

fighting breast cancer

Photo credit: Jasmina Tomic

I’m Taking Charge: How has Hidden Warriors and your relationships with so many powerful cancer “warriors” changed you life?


Marlene Sarli: Hidden Warriors has changed my life in many ways. The most impactful has been watching my Mother transform through her work with these women. She glows from the inside-out, gets stopped on the street constantly, and is truly vibrant and alive.  Which is exactly what I wanted from the beginning.  This work is life-giving for everybody who is involved.  All the collaborators and Warriors benefit from these Workshops, and watching something that I created do so much good is so powerful and beautiful.  I’m grateful that the idea came through me.


I’m Taking Charge: How do women participate in a Hidden Warriors Workshop?


Marlene Sarli: We are focusing on raising funds to have more Workshops in the future.  Meantime, we have a waiting list, as you can imagine, for women who would like to be transformed. Anyone who’d like to participate as a Warrior is encouraged to send us an email to: [email protected] with a photo of their face, and one of their full body so that we can keep it on file for the staff to plan out a transformation when the time comes. Also, we request that they send a short & simple statement on what they would NOT change about their experience with cancer.  We always focus on the “Gold in the Darkness”, the priceless perspective shifts that come out of a cancer diagnosis.

fighting breast cancer

Photo credit: Troy Plota

I’m Taking Charge: As a “cancer warrior” yourself, what advice can you offer to others struggling with their cancer journey?


Mayra Marino: I would say to them “take control of your life, now”!  Put your priorities in place, love yourself like never before and stop fretting about things that are not important.  Life is what counts and love overall is what matters.

Hidden Warriors has reminded me that you can never love yourself enough because if you love to the extreme, everyone around you will benefit!


Curious about what a happens at a workshop? Here is a link to their behind the scenes page, and see the powerful transformations Marlene and her staff create.

fighting breast cancer

Photo credit: Jason Goodrich



  1. Avatar
    Heidi July 29, 2016 at 6:38 am - Reply

    Love this! I took control of my cancer diagnosis and empowering myself with wigs! I bought 4 different wigs and had them colored. I was a different person everyday! One day purple hair, the next red and the next blond with teal! Another thing I found was having a henna crown done, beside being relaxing it was beautiful! We all need to find our power and move forward. It’s the only way!

    • Avatar
      Robin Gardner July 30, 2016 at 3:36 pm - Reply

      Thank you for your comment Heidi. I loved learning about Hidden Warriors, and writing about Marlene and Mayra. There’s so much we can accomplish when we feel strong and empowered. I’m glad you discovered a way to give yourself control, and empower yourself during your own cancer journey. Not to mention a fabulously creative way to express yourself. I’d love to hear about other ways women take some control back during their cancer journey.

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