Life is sometimes about finding beauty despite the struggle. Tian Justman’s life has been about both.
The 27-year-old couture fashion designer and Conyers native has fought cancer throughout her life. Now, she is fighting again, against leukemia, even as she prepares her first ready-to-wear collection.
Justman, a Heritage High School alum, was first diagnosed with cancer when she was 16-years-old with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that usually develops during adolescence.
While running track in her sophomore year, Justman was plagued with pain in her left knee. An X-ray revealed a large tumor in her lower left femur. Within two days, she was on a plane to Memphis to St. Jude, a leading research hospital for childhood cancers, where her aunt worked and where she would return through high school. "Not only would I have to go through treatment, which included eight months of chemotherapy and major leg surgery, but I would lose my hair... and that is pretty devastating for a high school girl," she said.
Had she been diagnosed 10 years earlier, her entire leg would have been taken off. Instead, she underwent a limb-salvage procedure which took out the lower half of her femur replacing it and the knee joint with a titanium rod and plates. "Needless to say, my high school years were more difficult than they should have been. I did have a wonderful small group of friends that stood by me though those traumatic teenage years, of whom I am eternally grateful."
During a routine checkup at St. Jude while she was in college, a nodule was found in Justman’s left lung. She began a chemotherapy protocol once again, and a thorocotomy was performed removing 30 percent of her left lung upper lobe, along with two ribs and a piece of her chest wall. "Incredibly, they managed to piece me back together nicely, and I ended up with another large scar to add to the growing collection," she said.
That bout motivated Justman, who was three years into a bio-genetics major at Georgia Southern, to pursue her love of fashion design and transfer to Bauder College. Justman went to New York city after graduation landing prestigious internships with W magazine and Jill Stuart. At 25, she returned to Atlanta producing fashion shows for Saks Fifth Avenue and began creating one-of-a-kind gowns for Atlanta socialites in her Old Fourth Ward design studio.
A career and life highlight for Justman was designing a gown for a St. Jude fundraiser in NYC a few years ago. Not only did her creation appear on the catwalk alongside major designers, but a fellow St. Jude patient modeled her gown.
Shortly after this event, Justman ended up in the ER suffering from a high fever, and she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. "I was floored. I had already beat cancer, and now they are telling me that I have another type of cancer I have to battle," she said. All the chemotherapy she received as a child caused a defect in her blood cell production. More chemotherapy followed and a stem cell transplant; luckily her brother was a perfect match.
Fast forward to three weeks ago and round four. In the midst of working hard to expand her custom gown business into a ready-to-wear collection, Justman learned the stem cell transplant wasn’t entirely successful — the leukemia has returned. Though she said it was hard to hear and face the process of fighting the disease once again, she is hopeful.
"I have to say of all the tears I have shed over the years for this disease; there have been many more smiles. Smiles from the tiny children going through treatment at St. Jude. Smiles from my brilliant doctors and nurses who keep me on this earth. Smiles from my family and friends who are my biggest support and smiles from me. It’s the smiles you live for," she said.
To view more of Justman’s vivid, distinctive designs, visit www.tianjustman.com.