“I have breast cancer. Will you help me tell my story?”

20 10 2013

In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month I’d like to share another amazing woman’s story and tell you how, in some small way, breast cancer photography helped this woman in her journey to recovery. I’m calling her “Rose”.

Our first contact with Rose was a phone call. She had a determined tone of voice on the phone, stating, ‘she didn’t want a consultation first’, ‘she was scheduled for a mastectomy’, ‘she would be bringing two friends with her for moral support’ and ‘she needed to get in right away now that she had made up her mind to do a photo shoot first’.

The following day three grim-faced ladies were on our doorstep, Rose leading the way, flanked by her two very skeptical friends. Rose made a striking first impression with her thick, shoulder-length, salt & pepper colored hair framing large expressive eyes. That day her eyes showed fear and fierce determination. During her photo shoot she revealed she was considering writing a book about her breast cancer journey and asked us if we would take the photos chronicling some of the significant steps and stages in her battle. We let her know we’d there for her whenever she called and how honored we were that she’d trust us in these most vulnerable moments.

We had four, post mastectomy, photo shoots through different steps of reconstruction and every photo shoot had a story. The evolution was something to behold perhaps even more on an emotional level than physical.

Shoot # 1. The first photo shoot was not long after her mastectomy. We made no attempt to minimize the emotions engraved upon her face- sorrow, loss, fear and determination. But that was only part of the story. Rose chose to wear black pants with a wide, embroidered, belt which was emblazoned with pink and red roses. Her expression, in juxtaposition with her colorful belt, let you know there was so much more to this fierce lady than your first impression.

Shoot # 2. The second photo shoot, meant to chronicle skin expanders, was more about love. For this shoot Rose arrived with her college-age daughter. And guess who was bald? Not Rose. Her daughter had shown up on Rose’s doorstep unannounced sporting a bald head as a show of solidarity for what lay ahead. The wardrobe selection for today was a prayer shawl. I learned there are groups of wonderful people who knit shawls of comfort and hope. I don’t know if all of the shawls are as beautiful as this shawl which looked like it was made of silk and mohair yarn with inspiring charms woven randomly through-out. While this shawl came from someone unknown, what certainly was known, is that the hands which created it made it with loving intention and that love was present with us on that day.

Shoot # 3. When I opened our front door there were two huge smiling eyes looking directly at me awaiting my reaction. “Rose, your eyes are so much more beautiful without all that hair!” Sure enough Rose decided proactively to shave her head and therefore spare herself the pain of finding clumps of hair on her pillow and everywhere else- the anticipated side effect of chemo treatments. And she really did look beautiful.

We then went a long time with no word from Rose or her daughter and began to worry about her but didn’t want to call her home and potentially upset her or her family. Finally, on a long shot, I searched Facebook for her and her daughter hoping I would find a hint about her prognosis. And there she was in a recent picture skiing with her family and enjoying life! I decided I could safely call her to see if she was ready for another photo shoot.

When she got back to me she said she was feeling great and wasn’t sure she would do another shoot after all but would let me know. Rose explained she didn’t think she really needed to tell her story now, that the process of documenting it had helped her get through the long ordeal and had given her the strength and motivation to keep on fighting through her despair. The goal of ‘helping others’ had ultimately helped her.

Shoot # 4. Rose called again. Friends had told Rose. “You have to tell your story. There are people in need waiting for it.” Now it was time for the happy pictures; the ones that give us hope for ourselves and our loved ones.

We did print out all the images Rose selected for her digital book though I truly don’t know if she published it or not. I do know Rose touched us and I hope her story from my eyes helps someone else.

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Breast Cancer and Personal Decisions

9 03 2012

Breast cancer touches all of us, either by way of a personal battle, or that of someone we love, a family member or friend, or even a friend of a friend. It’s a concern, even a fear, we hold in our hearts and minds every day especially on the day of our mammograms and the long, scary wait for our results.   My mother had two radical mastectomies about 30 years apart. A number of close friends have been diagnosed with breast cancer and my husband and I have had the honor of photographing quite a few women who have shared their journey with us by way of pre surgical and/or  post surgical pictures.  I’m such a strong believer in empowering women to make their own informed decisions in life about what is best for them.  I still can’t imagine how these brave and amazing women absorb the news they have breast cancer and are still able, within just days, to analyze and make the critical decisions on the course of their battle plan.

I’d like to periodically post some of the stories women have shared with us regarding their decision to have pictures taken as a result their diagnosis.  Some people won’t understand why anyone would decide to take photographs and others will ‘get it.’  It doesn’t matter what you think or even what I think about this.  What matters is what it means to the women making the decision.  If our photography has been helpful in some way to the breast cancer survivors we’ve photographed, then I want other woman to know we are here for them.

Twelve years ago or more we got a phone call from a woman stating she needed to get in immediately for a photo shoot and she didn’t have time for or want a consultation first.   She’d just seen one of our ads and decided on the spot that she wanted to have some artistic pictures taken of her breasts.  She went on to explain in an understandably shaky voice that she was scheduled for a double mastectomy in three days and needed to get in for pictures before her surgery.   The following day she was at our studio and shared a bit of her story with my husband Darrell.  She is just a tiny person and she explained how she’d always liked her breasts, that along with all the other bigger issues confronting her now, she was also grieving at the prospect of losing this part of her body that made her feel pretty, feminine, attractive.    She and Darrell sat there for probably 30-minutes just talking and crying a bit before beginning the shoot.  While she’d specifically stated she wanted the pictures to focus on her breasts, Darrell wanted to get some pictures of other parts of her body so that she’d know she was beautiful in so many ways and that that wasn’t going to change.  During the shoot, he asked permission to take a specific picture of her back and buttocks to which she agreed though with more of a, ‘if you really want to attitude.’  He took the picture and a Polaroid as well of the same pose so she could have positive feedback immediately.  Seeing the Polaroid she commented, “Yeah, it’s nice. Kind of arsty fartsy though!”  And that was that.

Two days later, she and her husband came by to look at her proof sheets from the shoot.  While she was momentarily out of the room her husband turned directly to us, staring pointedly into our eyes and said, “Thank you so much.  My wife has barely spoken since getting the diagnosis and she certainly hasn’t smile.  After her photo shoot when she got home I asked her how it went and she looked up at me with a smile and told me, “I’m ready now.  I’m going to go upstairs, light some candles, and get in the bathtub with a glass of wine.”  We weren’t quite sure how the photo shoot had that impact, but we were so grateful that in some way we’d helped her to get to that point.

Remember that “artsy fartsy” picture?  It’s a beautiful art piece now, still hanging over their bed or at least it was when we were at their home one time for dinner.