[Angelina Jolie took tomb-raiding to a whole new level in her op-ed piece in yesterday's NY Times. In the article, the actress/humanitarian/wife/mother/and not-just-in-the-movies-an-ass-kicking-superhero-of-a-woman, shared her own absolute reality of confronting the shit out of breast cancer—before cancer could even think of drawing its pistol out of its holster. She revealed she has the breast cancer gene and has taken decisive action against the BRCA1 mutation she inherited, by way of a recent prophylactic bilateral mastectomy. Reducing her risk of getting breast cancer from 87% to under 5% seems like a no-brainer. It also seems a little barbaric that in this day and age the best we have to offer in the way of a cure/prevention is amputation. Bravo, Namaste, Cheers to Jolie's health, and props to her, not only for the extreme courage in making such a difficult choice, but also in sharing her story with the world. Her willingness to use her superstar status to increase awareness will save lives. Literally, raid tombs. Collaterally, Jolie's article, which has gone viral, is bringing much-needed attention to some of the struggles carriers of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene face. In today's guest post, SCAR Girl Sara "Bartowski" Hamilton, who has written HERE about her own struggles as a Pre-vivor, weighs in on the discussion.]
Guest Post by SCAR Girl Sara “Bartowski” Hamilton
I am incredibly thankful to Angelina Jolie. It has been six years since my own prophylactic mastectomy and every time I am sure we have finally made it over the hurdle, I become aware we still have so far to go. And every time someone famous uses their platform to raise awareness and educate the masses, they help us make progress. Because Angelina chose to share her story, more families will hear about the possibility of a genetic component behind family members dying of cancer. They may choose to seek out genetic counseling. They may start communicating about a topic that is very painful. Angelina Jolie talks about her beloved mother and the pain she has that some of her children will never know their grandmother. My mom carries the same pain – my sisters and I only know our Nona through photos and stories. Talking about what is tearing families apart can be difficult but maybe Angelina’s story will help people find courage to talk about the possibility of a genetic component. And having the knowledge of a genetic mutation will help people be able to make choices fully armed with the current research and knowledge we have available.
True to her humanitarian nature, Angelina openly discussed the costs of genetic testing. Let’s be real, for Angelina, this is a drop in her bucket but she understands those costs are going to be prohibitive to others. Immediately my mind went to the case before the Supreme Court and their upcoming ruling on whether or not Myriad will be able to hold a patent on our genes. The reason our testing is so expensive and, therefore, often not possible for those who don’t have thousands sitting in their bank account is because Myriad currently holds a patent. This patent has allowed them to keep the price high when, in fact, the testing should at most cost a couple hundred dollars.
Not surprisingly, I also immediately saw comments from those who show up to judge the choices Angelina has made. Having dealt with harsh judgment throughout my own journey from prophylactic bilateral mastectomy with construction to my recent “deconstruction”, the critics struck a sensitive chord that I feel I’m particularly qualified to address. I wish the critics recognize these choices are not entered into lightly and without heavy consideration. Understandably, this upsets some of my BRCA sisters. It is difficult to make such a life altering decision and then have a mob of cruel critics tell you that you were being drastic or rash. I encourage my BRCA sisters to take these judgments as evidence of the work we still have to do; we obviously have many people who still need to be educated. But don’t take it personally. Stand strong in the reasons you made the choices you made and let your story continue to be told to help those who come behind. Let it also continue driving us to actively embrace that we all have choices and we must reach out our hands to support each other in these choices. The choice to be tested, the choice of surveillance, the choice of prophylactic surgeries, the choice of reconstruction, the choice of being flat*. And every choice is valid. None of our choices are easy but we all make the choices that we feel are best for us in that moment. And I am a perfect example that sometimes our choices will change…and that is okay too.
Later this morning, Brad Pitt showed up for some mad love. He publicly commented on Angelina’s choices and said:
Having witnessed this decision firsthand, I find Angie’s choice, as well as so many others like her, absolutely heroic…All I want for is for her to have a long and healthy life, with myself and our children. This is a happy day for our family.
Maybe for some people it would seem strange that we applaud Brad for making this statement. However, I have talked to the women who decide not to go forward with a prophylactic mastectomy because their partner is not supportive. I have talked to women who are single who and terrified their decision will impact their ability to find a partner. In my own journey, I remember the very real fear and wondering if my husband would find me less than…and again when I was facing extraction I thought surely my hubby would never be able to look at me, touch me again. I love that Brad has spoken because he has given a voice to the men I know – my hubby, the husbands of some of my SCAR sisters – he has shown there are men who find the worth and beauty of a woman in more than her breast tissue. He embraces and admires Angelina’s choices and that is what should be and yet is often overlooked in our stories. I am incredibly proud of the men I know who embrace the choices of their partner and support them any way they can and I am thankful their story has a small piece of the spotlight today as well.
The fact remains, there is NO cure for breast cancer. It kills thousands every year. Genetic cancer, we are told, comes earlier and more aggressively. We also are told that we are at higher risk for recurrence. I pray every day a cure will be found…for my children, for my friends. We can all help get a little closer by not buying into the pink washing of our society – spend time reading about The SCAR Project, Bright Pink, FORCE. Do some hard research about where your donations are going and make educated choices on where you want your money spent. And start raising your voice with us as we scream for a cure.
Much love to you, Angelina Jolie. I wish you did not have to join our sisterhood but I applaud you, one of our newest sisters, for raising your voice and telling the world your story.
*Sara and fellow SCAR girl Barbie Ritzco have founded a Flat AND Fabulous awareness group on Facebook, and a Flat AND Fabulous support group page as well, for those living the Flat AND Fabulous lifestyle.
by Joules Evans
One of the loveliest perks of the role I get to play as exhibition coordinator and social media manager for The SCAR Project is collecting and sharing the SCAR girls’ stories here. Their portraits have impacted me (as they have you, as they have tens of thousands of others like you and me, who visit the exhibits, web site and follow the Facebook group) not only as a fellow breast cancer survivor but also on a basic human level. Like SCAR photographer David Jay says, “The SCAR Project’s deeper message is one of humanity. The acceptance of all that life offers us . . . all the beauty . . . all the suffering too . . . with grace, courage, empathy, and understanding. Ultimately, The SCAR Project is not about breast cancer, but the human condition itself; the images intend to transcend the disease, illuminating the scars that unite us all.”
The SCAR Project is filled with portraits of young women who have come to the place where, as Carly Simon described—from her own experience of having battled the bitch that is breast cancer—“she accepts the war she went through and is ennobled by her scars.”
Ennobled. Honestly, when I first heard about The SCAR Project from my friend Shelly while we were a pair of bald chicks hooked up to IVs in the chemo cocktail lounge, ennobled wasn’t the first word that popped into my head when I imagined a photographic exhibition of young women confronting breast cancer and baring their scars.
Road-trip. That was my first thought. Shelly and I met in the chemo lounge and the only time we’d ever spent together up to that point was in the chemo cocktail lounge, sitting side by side in pale blue recliners, waging the ugliest war either of us had ever fought and neither of us were feeling ennobled quite yet. But I was feeling like a road-trip to the Big Apple to see The SCAR Project Exhibition (which I hadn’t even Googled because she said it was an awareness campaign I already felt pretty breast cancer aware) sounded like just the ticket.
I wasn’t as breast cancer aware as I thought I was. I mean, I was aware of my breast cancer, my absolute reality of what surviving cancer, or at least fighting like hell to survive it, felt like, my scars. But then I saw Emily’s portrait at The SCAR Project Exhibition.
My scars are similar to Emily’s, but mine tell a different story. At the time of my diagnosis I was a 42-year-old mother of three teens. I nursed them all as babies. In Emily’s portrait I saw a beautiful young mother-to-be confronting a completely different reality of surviving cancer than me.
That quote from Carly Simon comes to mind when I think about standing in front of Emily’s picture, the first time I saw The SCAR Project. Especially, that word: ennobling.
I was super fortunate to get to meet a couple of the SCAR girls that day. I was on a gallery tour with SCAR Photographer David Jay, and Vanessa Tiemeier and Melissa Adams were both in attendance for the tour, standing beside their SCAR portraits, emanating beauty, courage, and grace. Eager to share their SCAR stories. Ennobled.
As their images “transcend the disease, illuminating the scars that unite us all” so do their stories, and their lives, as well. And as I’ve gotten to know the SCAR girls over the past few years, I thought you might like to know some of the noble things these ennobled women are doing, to not just move forward, but to pay it forward.
Vanessa, who at 31-years-young has been battling breast cancer since she was 25, has long had a motto of living sincerely. She even has a live sincerely tattoo with a pink peony on her left calf. It’s her trademark “not a pink ribbon”. Shortly after she was diagnosed with a recurrence of metastasis to the brain, she and her sisters founded The Live Sincerely Project to encourage others to LIVE… really live NOW… and not wait till they find out they are dying to start really living. If you haven’t checked it out and taken the Live Sincerely Pledge, it’s not just the best way you can send Vanessa a little love and encouragement, but don’t just do it “For V” Do it for you. That’s what she’d want, anyway, because that’s how she rolls, living sincerely as she goes.
SCAR girl Barbie Ritzco aka Soldier Interrupted aka Marathon Barbie is one of the most kickass inspirational people I know. Besides RUNNING ACROSS THE COUNTRY with Steve Cannon and his coast to coast for cancer million dollar fundraiser for Livestrong this summer, Barbie and her SCAR sister Sara Hamilton have co-founded Flat AND Fabulous, an organization supporting women who are living the “Flat AND Fabulous” lifestyle after having their breasts amputated from confronting breast cancer, rather than, for one reason or another, having gone the reconstruction route. There is a Flat AND Fabulous Awareness group HERE. If you are living the Flat AND Fabulous lifestyle and looking for others who have been there and done that click HERE.
On the other end of the spectrum, SCAR girl Cary Goldberg found that after rocking a flat chest for five years, her posture started to suffer and she needed a foundation garment to get her standing straight again. Frustrated by uncomfortable mastectomy bras that constricted the free flow of lymph and were just plain ugly, she was thrilled to discover a women run sports bra company called Handful. Once she tried on their pocketed sports bra, fell in love with it and learned it was already L8000 mastectomy bra approved, she became COO and part owner of the company. Handful is changing their manufacturing to Made in the USA and Cary dreams of making more products that help survivors as their four-woman company grows. Check out this video about Handful HERE.
Speaking of fabulous, SCAR girl Sylvia Soo founded Cancerfabulous to chronicle her own experience fighting back with style, to inspire, and as a resource for other young women fighting breast cancer. Sylvia is currently working on a book with Rethink Breast Cancer called, Cancer Fabulous Diaries, which is due out later this year. Her short film, Dear Sister won the Amazing Grace Award at Toronto’s Breast Film Fest last year. Sylvia is also one of the four women (as is Vanessa Tiemier) featured in the EMMY Award winning SCAR Project documentary, Baring It All.
Heather Salazar and Diana Featherstone both work with a non profit organization called the Pink Ribbon Girls, whose mission is to provide personalized support to young women throughout all phases of the breast cancer journey, and whose motto is: “No one travels this road alone”.
Amber Crouse founded (or rounded up;) the F*CK Cancer Posse. The Knoxville based commuity seeks to reach young cancer survivors and their caregivers/co-survivors so that they do not have to face cancer alone.
Jocelyn Banks founded Mommy Has Breast Cancer, an organization whose mission is all about supporting the entire family throughout a diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.
Shay Sharpe’s Pink Wishes organization grants wishes to young women diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, between the ages of 18-40 and facing a terminal diagnosis from their physician.
[Today's guest blogger is no stranger to The SCAR Blog. When Facebook removed some of the SCAR images this time last year, Sara wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg on her BLOG which I cross-posted here, with her permission. When quite a few of the SCAR girls were making preparations to head south for The SCAR BAMA exhibition, Sara wrote about it on her blog and once again I snagged it for reprint HERE (again, with her permission) because the SCAR sisterhood, which her article provides a lovely glimpse into, is one of the many beautiful things that has evolved from David Jay's The SCAR Project Exhibit that many might be unaware of. When Sara got back from The SCAR BAMA exhibition, she wrote a beautiful recap on her blog, which of course also landed HERE, because she's a generous soul like that, not to mention a dear friend. At which point I played both those cards in the latter part of the previous sentence and told her I thought with 3 SCAR blogs under her belt it was probs time for her to share her story. Of course, she did. And here it is. Thank you, Sara, love!]
by Sara Bartosiewicz-Hamilton
12/12/12…I call it my lucky day…the day my life started over. I had no idea how true this would be. Leading up to the 12th day of the 12th month of the 12th year, I was filled with anxiety, ready to have it over…at the same time, I wondered if I was sure. I kept telling myself, if ever I think I’m not ready, I’ll pull the plug…I still showed up. I started tearing up as the nurse prepped me for the surgery. She asked if I was okay.Yeah. She asked if I was sure I wanted to do this. Yeah. She said, it doesn’t make it any easier, does it? And that’s exactly what it was…I knew in my heart and my head it needed to be done…but knowing it, believing it, didn’t make it easier. Much like the beginning of this journey.
I was tested for a gene mutation in the fall of 2006. I knew I had a 50/50 chance of having the mutation…my spirit was prepared to hear I was positive. And I was. I was told I had the BRCA2 mutation and, through tears, I responded by asking the genetic counselor to set me up with what came next. She was confused. I was only 29, surely I could wait, surely I didn’t need to do anything until I was 40. Genetic testing was not new but it was not common yet either…I was the youngest person she had tested. I knew what I needed to do. I wanted to have a mastectomy. Take out the tissue that had an 85% chance of turning on me. Get it out, let me live my life. Let me give up this fear.
Fear. Our family tree of cancer explains my fear. In my mind, it was a matter of when, never a matter of if. I was surprised by some of the backlash I received from my choice to have a prophylactic mastectomy. I was naive. I was young. I didn’t realize there was a lot of fear behind that anger…sometimes, guilt. I couldn’t handle it so I shut myself away. I tried to find someone, anyone on the internet. My oncological surgeon told me she knew there were other young women choosing to have PBMs…I just couldn’t find any. I was isolated. Friends closest to me told me I shouldn’t do it if I couldn’t be happy. Happy? Was that what I was supposed to feel? I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be happy about. This wasn’t a boob job. This was the removal of my body parts…my tissue ripped out of my body. And replaced…a plastic mound shoved under my muscle. A plastic mound that would grow over time as I was injected with more fluid, that would continue shoving my muscle around. And all of this to evade cancer…that may eventually come for me anyways.
A girl found me on MySpace. She was the one who told me about the SCAR Project and she asked if I wanted to meet her and a couple other girls in NYC to be photographed. I looked up the website and was speechless. I was looking at young women…I was looking at me. I immediately reached out to David Jay:
David~ I would like to be involved…I have never had breast cancer but have the BRCA2 gene (mutation). I had a prophylactic mastectomy at 29 because the gene (mutation) gave me an 85% chance of getting breast cancer. I understand your project is for women who have fought breast cancer but I thought I would volunteer in case you could use me as well. Regardless, I look forward to seeing the finished project. When I was getting ready for my surgery, I was desperately searching for what I would look like afterwords. I couldn’t find pictures of young women…this is powerful. Thank you.”
I was so excited (and terrified at the same time) when David wrote back and asked me to come. I wanted to participate because I wanted there to be a photo. I wanted the next 29 year old to be able to find my photo and be able to find the courage to have a PBM…to know she was going to be okay. I was terrified because I was going to be photographed. Because there would be a photo of me…there was going to be a photograph of my scars. There was going to be a photograph documenting myimperfection…
It didn’t help when I received an email that it may be best to wait. When I asked why, I was told he was receiving emails and he wasn’t sure what to think. I was devastated. And then I was enraged. I received a copy of the email because my sister went to bat for me and was sent a copy of the email:
Please re consider the shooting of Sara… She is Not appropriate for this project. she NEVER Had cancer. She only took off her breasts as prevention!!! Everyone in her friend circle and family knows that she is not stable to do this!!!! She does things like this for attention. Who??? Has a DOUBLE MASTECTOMY at age 30 when NO cancer is present??? Someone who is not STABLE. Her mother has NEVER had cancer. Her GRANDMOTHER has NEVER had cancer. This is not the same as your other candidates. PLEASE DO NOT encourage her behavior… Now. I say this with love but as you can understand MANY of us are tired of her charades. And having her half naked in a magazine for us all to explain to people who are AWARE that she NEVER had cancer in the first place. It makes a mockery of those women who have actually almost lost their lives.”
It was obvious to me this was not someone closest to me – my grandma did, in fact, have cancer, she had died of cancer. On the flip side, to be honest, I think it hurt so much because I wondered myself. Am I the only one who goes through a double mastectomy at 29 (ahem, NOT 30) without there being cancer present? As I tried to explain the untruth throughout the email, I expressed that I had been wrestling with guilt. Guilt that my choice was done out of fear…guilt that I was a sissy because I was too afraid to get cancer.
When I finally made it out to NYC, I had a lot on my mind. I had also received emails from this same person spewing ugly things. At that time in my life, I was unable to recognize that sometimes people are ugly because of what is inside of them…and it has nothing to do with me. I was unable to detach from their words, unable not to internalize them. While it didn’t stop me from going, it made me pause. Was I doing the right thing? I was the last girl to be shot that day. I arrived after everyone was done being photographed (read: dressed). I sat down and had my make-up and hair done and then it was time. The point at which I was taking off my shirt, it seemed like a really crazy idea. Other than my doctors, my hubby was the only one who had seen the scars and he saw them with the security of a dark room and, even then, I did what I could to hide them. I was asked beforehand to bring something that had meaning or relevance to my shoot. I brought a charm with a picture of my littles on it and I also brought a photo of my mom and two of her sisters. I had something which explained without words the reason for my prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and I had something to explain why I would choose this. David went with the photo of my mom and two of her sisters. I’m so thankful he did – for all of time, my photo explains the family ties and the multiple generations our mutation has affected.
Something happened at my photo shoot. Something I was not even aware of yet. I found a place where I belonged. A place of acceptance. A place of understanding. A place of love. I am forever thankful for my first SCAR sisters. They helped me embrace that my story was valid…they helped me see I was accepted into their “club” without having cancer. They helped pull me back on my feet when I didn’t even realize I was floundering. And they helped me grow taller that day. They were impressed by my courage and strength. I didn’t believe them quite yet but I held onto them, hoping they were right.
Fast forward a few years. It seemed surreal as I sat across from someone I called my best friend and heard similar words of ugliness being flung at me. Ironically, it was my five year “boobiversary” – five years after my mastectomy and I was being assaulted with words. Self-mutilator. In need of a therapist, not a surgeon. I had just disclosed I was planning on removing my implants. It was something I had been quietly considering for a while. I had not talked about it with many people: hubby, my plastic surgeon and with one of my SCAR sisters at the Cincinnati exhibit. I was having daily discomfort and pain and was hopeful that having my implants extracted would help relieve this. I was at the point of being ready to schedule the surgery and wanted the moral support of my friend…my “best” friend. I was caught off guard. The me who showed up for my PBM would have allowed this assault to continue until completion…the me who spent the past couple years embracing my new reality was strong enough to say stop…strong enough to walk away. Unfortunately, not before internalizing some of the accusations. I delayed my extraction for another year. I lived with the discomfort and pain as I searched my soul. I couldn’t deny what I was feeling but was I sure having my implants removed was the right choice?
I was back in Cincinnati when I had the courage to say it was time. I came home and the first conversation hubby and I had was that I wanted to schedule the extraction. It seemed like more than coincidence, perhaps a sign from the universe, when I was opening the mail immediately after our conversation and I opened lab results from my doctor confirming an autoimmune disease. When I had my pre-surgery appointment with my plastic surgeon, it was both amusing and sad to hear my plastic surgeon ask me what had taken so long. He told me he could tell this was the right choice for me…over a year before.
Fast forward to 12/12/12. My life truly did start over. When I woke up from surgery, the discomfort was gone. As my body healed, so did my spirit. I noticed I started looking at myself in the mirror without the little black box to censor what I was seeing. I realized I was the most comfortable I had been in my own body since my mastectomy. I found myself forgetting about the extraction and am no longer reminded daily of my surgeries, my BRCA mutation, or my lingering fear cancer will find me. Life started over, no longer hindered by the past.
I have been incredibly blessed – I always had someone in my corner. And, as my journey progressed, that corner became fuller and fuller. I choose to include the pain and judgment of the past because it is, unfortunately, what many women in my shoes continue to hear. However, while those hurtful words have no power over me, they give me the ability to reach out to someone else and say, I understand. I heard that too. I am hopeful that sharing will also help those who would place judgment to step back and recognize, it’s okay if you would never make the choices I made but it doesn’t give you the right to try to say you could live my life better than me. When I look back, I remember vividly the isolation I felt before my prophylactic mastectomy and again, feeling in the extreme minority as I was considering my extraction. I don’t ever want any woman to be completely alone. I recently started a Facebook group with my fellow SCAR sister Barbie – it’s called Flat & Fabulous. We are actively on the hunt for our fellow sisters who have had a mastectomy and, for one reason or another, do not have reconstruction. It has been both validating and heart breaking as I get emails from a stranger telling me she never knew there was someone else like her. Our page offers support, encouragement, and LOTS of laugh as we all go forward with living our new reality.
I recently wrote about The SCAR Project Exhibition in Birmingham and Joules texted me to ask if I would share my article here on The SCAR Project blog. About five minutes after she told me it was up and asked me to proof it, I received another text that said now that I’d written for the blog THREE times, but had yet to share my own SCAR story… “it’s time.“
So, this is my story. It spans over my lifetime. It starts at my mastectomy. And again at my extraction. I am incredibly thankful for the lessons I’ve learned along the way about love, friendships, life, and what is truly important. Trying my best to Live Sincerely.every.single.day.
[Follow-up guest post and recap of The SCAR BAMA Exhibition. This article is posted with permission from SCAR girl Sara's blog and that link can be found HERE.]
by Sara Bartosiewicz-Hamilton
It has been over a week since I got back…it has taken me this long to try to digest it. I think I have been avoiding it because I am left with so many questions and so many hopes…and yet I know the reality of the situation as well. I apologize in advance for the bouncing around that is about to occur. You’ll get two gold stars if you follow me to the end…
I honestly did not plan to go to the exhibit in Birmingham, Alabama. It was three weeks after my extraction. Before my surgery, I assumed I wouldn’t be ready to be in front of people…after surgery, I thought I wouldn’t be feeling well enough to go. But then, Billy posted in the SCAR girls page that he had just booked tickets for himself and Vanessa. I should have known in that moment.
I first met Billy and Vanessa in Cincinnati. Billy is the ultimate host and Vanessa is the epitome of glamour. Hubby and I talked on the way home how we wished we lived closer because we enjoyed their company so much. Who doesn’t love a couple who hike all over the city trying to find you food, only to have to pack up and hit a White Castle and have lots of laughs while doing it! It was shortly after the exhibit that Vanessa started to decline in health, her cancer had returned and had spread to the lining in her brain…and then her brain.
|Live Sincerely party on the Purple People Bridge|
Vanessa has a motto – live sincerely. She started posting more and more about this motto, what this means. She and her sisters developed a website. And then she invited everyone to a Live Sincerely party on the Purple People Bridge. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect that day. Vanessa was going through treatments…major treatments. I am quite certain I was one of those lame people who talked louder so she could understand me because that was so helpful…and I was uncomfortable with both Vanessa and Billy, unsure of what to say, and kind of hung out in the background. In reality, I was struggling with a few things that day. But that day was a turning point for me. I was truly trying to take one day at a time and was still having a hard time doing so. Watching the interactions and the love…watching the intent. It moved me deeply.
|Live Sincerely – spelled out in luminaries|
In the fall, the same gallery that hosted the SCAR project hosted Angelo Merendino and his exhibit, The Battle We Didn’t Choose. Vanessa had traveled to Cleveland and loved the exhibit and Angelo. It was brought to the gallery for her birthday. It was so special to watch Vanessa. It was hard not to notice the obvious connection between Vanessa and the exhibit. It seemed as though Vanessa was showing the rest of us what daily life might be looking like for her and Billy. I talked with Vanessa about what her favorite photo was…her all pink accessorized outfit…Live Sincerely (of course)…and watched her delight as she looked down to see the luminaries spelling out her motto.
|The beautiful birthday girl|
What do you get a birthday girl who is Stage IV and trying to show the rest of us how to embrace life and live sincerely? I couldn’t come up with a great idea so I came up with a dumb one instead…a life size Hello Kitty balloon. I was kind of worried it would scare her…thankfully, it didn’t and thankfully it didn’t terrify their dog and I found out in Birmingham Hello Kitty is still going…not too strong but her head is still inflated…um, that’s three or four months later?!? That’s the best dumb birthday gift I’ve ever come up with.
I will be honest…every trip I have gone on, I prepare myself that this will probably be the last time I get to see Vanessa. I go into it thinking this and I think this is why I become so awkward around her. I don’t want her to know I am thinking this…so I act like a kid trying to hide something naughty they have done.
This trip, it was different. Maybe, I am different. Since that day on the Purple People Bridge, I have challenged myself to think differently. To truly see the blessings, no matter how big or small, around me. To truly live in the moment, not in the past, not in the future…live in the present. So, for me, although at that moment I didn’t realize there was a shift in my brain, I saw Billy’s post and saw an opportunity to spend precious time with someone who has tremendously impacted my view on the world. It also seemed fairly miraculous in itself – I cried when the DC exhibit had been postponed because, in all sincerity, I thought it would be the last exhibit Vanessa would have been able to attend. So, here was the Birmingham exhibit and Vanessa and Billy were going. I woke up the Friday before with a sense of needing to be in Birmingham. I am incredibly thankful I listen to my spirit…I am incredibly thankful for a husband who supports me listening to my spirit.
|Vanessa & me with Flat Jolene|
My mission in Birmingham: Project Vanessa. I took the opportunity to be with Billy and Vanessa seriously…as serious as one can be when Billy is in the room. I felt incredibly blessed to be in the same state as them for multiple days, let alone the same hotel. And, lest anyone become concerned I was stalking them…well, I kind of was? But it seemed like they were both fairly okay with it.
When I first saw Vanessa in Birmingham, she looked so healthy. Yes, I see she looks different than when I first met her but she also seemed less tired or worn down than when I have seen her this past year. It took me by surprise, actually. And it made me pause…I had already been struggling with my thoughts. Over the past year, as I mentioned, I kept seeing Vanessa and thinking it was the last time I would see her. I began to consider that I was counting her out and she is still here. It frustrated me…I don’t want to do that…and I know Vanessa wouldn’t want me to do that.
It reminds me of a time in high school. I was brought to a hospital about an hour from where I lived…I was brought there to say goodbye to an aunt who had ovarian cancer. I was too young to remember how long she was in that hospital or how long it took but my aunt is alive and well today. And I began to wonder…why have I stopped believing in miracles? Why have I automatically assumed it won’t happen? I know I believed it couldn’t…I am unsure what I believe today.
|He was supposed to be taking the photo of Vanessa and me…BILLY!|
Vanessa was anxious to get to the gallery…we all were. Unfortunately, my group got a bit…well….lost. So, by the time we made it, Vanessa and Billy were on the hunt for food…Project Vanessa was not going well! (I just wondered, perhaps Billy had his own covert mission: operation avoid me!!) It was probably a good thing my group was so late…it made it much easier to find a spot to hide as I cried. It is a regular thing for me…surrounded by the beauty and strength of my SCAR sisters photos resorts me to tears. This time, it was a bit different because I feel different…as if those sisters are the only ones who truly can understand where I stand today…and a bit of gratitude mixed in…sensing I was exactly where I was meant to be in that moment.
Thankfully for me (and Project Vanessa) some of us met for dinner. I made myself a nuisance and sat directly across from Vanessa and Billy. It was the first of many conversations Vanessa and I (and Billy) had over the weekend. Yes, there were times where she repeated a story…like telling me about the leg warmers she was excited to have for the exhibit and thought she had misplaced. But it didn’t bother her when she asked me if she had told me about it yet and I answered honestly, yes. We just moved on. I watched as she took pictures…I don’t know how to describe it. It would seem almost like an OCD behavior but, at the same time, she was okay if she was encouraged to just stay in her seat and relax. I got to hear about her trip to Ten Thousand Villages to purchase ornaments for her nephews. She was so excited as she told me the process of picking them out (and getting to go in the back room to see the ones not on the floor yet) and how special it would be as they open them up even when she is no longer here. Yes, she openly says this…and, in a way, it was a relief – acknowledging this humongous elephant in the room. And, yet, we just moved on. I explained how I do the same thing with my kids – a special ornament every year and how they love it…every year, they are most excited to unwrap the ornaments that are their’s and hang them on the tree. Vanessa said she hopes it will be the same for her nephews.
Selfishly, I was relieved when she called me by name. Over the past year, I have assumed Vanessa didn’t know who I was. Yes, I met her before her health deteriorated but it isn’t as if we spent a lot of time together then. I have interacted with her over the internet but it isn’t the same. She has had a lot going on, she has been through a lot, it would have seemed totally normal to me if one day she looked at me and asked me who I was and why do I insist on following her around. So, to hear her say, Sara….it meant a lot…priceless, actually.
|Bacon lollipops – Vanessa gave them two thumbs up!|
The rest of the time, I just followed Billy and Vanessa’s lead. We ate breakfast together at the hotel. I got to see how Vanessa’s tastebuds might be a bit…off. It reminded me of the movie Elf (and yes, I told Vanessa and Billy this). Where Buddy (the Elf) puts syrup on spaghetti and is addicted to sugar. Vanessa made hot chocolate and then put sugar and cream in it. She ate waffles and needed cinnamon and sugar and syrup in each of the squares (actually, I have been known to try to have the same ratio with waffles and syrup). While Vanessa was eating her waffles, she talked about all kinds of things. I got to hear about the first time she met Billy…she talked about her wedding day and how Billy may come by being a smart alec quite naturally. It was so special to hear about all these memories Vanessa has…and interesting to watch her remember them but not quite remember if she had told me about those leg warmers yet.
At one of the breakfast dates, I asked Vanessa if I could look through her camera. After watching her at dinner, I knew her card must be overflowing. I wanted to get a glimpse at what she is thinking about, what is catching her eye. She graciously allowed me to look. It was fairly remarkable. I got to see the last several weeks of her life…some pictures that reminded me of the tag project but there were so many others that, well, they kind of took my breath away. What I saw must be what day to day life looks like when you actually pay attention. The details of a room…the artwork, the flower arrangements, the colors. The things we do to “finish” a look but then never pay attention to them again. Vanessa and Billy had gone to a restaurant called the Mellow Mushroom. Vanessa took all these photos of all these things in the restaurant. I went to the restaurant later in the weekend and it took me a bit to realize, I am sitting among Vanessa’s photos. She also had photos of an iron, standing up, laying down. Pictures like that. But I enjoyed the opportunity to see where her brain is at right now and watching it unfold in her pictures.
I tried not to pry. I asked how she slept, I would ask Billy how he was doing. When I got the canned answers, I let it be. I offered to take Vanessa with me to the store, I understood when the answer was she probably wasn’t up for it. I wanted to help and understood that helping might be just being present when asked. And I enjoyed every moment I could, listening to Vanessa, talking with her, helping her. It was beautiful.
|Vanessa reading her speech – that’s me holding the poster she made|
I watched with pride as Vanessa read her speech to the guests at the gala. Vanessa and I talked multiple times about how she didn’t want anyone to be upset she was reading her speech. She had written it beforehand because she wanted to be sure she remembered everything she wanted to say. I reassured her multiple times, people want to hear from you, they aren’t going to care that you are reading it. I was so happy when she gifted our new SCAR sister Leah with the Live Sincerely poster she had made. Vanessa was so excited about it. When I was arriving in Birmingham, Billy had texted me they were at a UPS making this poster. Vanessa had told me multiple times she would not be able to get it home and she wanted to leave it in Alabama with one of the local SCAR sisters. In fact, Vanessa was a bit concerned after her speech and after she explained she was giving Leah her poster that no one was coming up to take their pictures with it. Was Vanessa unaware of the people around her crying? the impact her speech had? I was too focused on holding that poster and listening to her speech and willing myself to think only about what was happening in the moment but I knew everyone was incredibly moved and just needed a minute to recover. Don’t worry, they will…they just need a minute. (And if you did, please make Vanessa’s day and go post your photos at her website!)
Even as I have been writing and rewriting this post…I have had a mix of laughter and tears. Much like the bitter-sweetness of the weekend, though, thankfully, I contained my tears to the one time at the gallery. Being thankful Vanessa was there, being slapped back to reality to hear Billy say it may just be him at the next exhibit.
I don’t have a grand finale for this post. In my mind, I still have many questions that may never be answered. Yes, I think about the miracle that occurred in my aunt’s life and I am now praying for the same miracle in Vanessa’s life. At the same time, I comprehend, as much as I am able to, how grim the situation is. Vanessa has cancer in her brain that is growing. The miracle of restored health, it might not happen. I am beginning to realize giving up on the belief of miracles may be a way in which to protect myself when it doesn’t come to fruition. Much like I have approached the times I have seen Vanessa over the past year as the “last time”. Because, if I prepare myself, it won’t hurt as much? In essence, it created a barrier between us and I am immensely thankful that barrier was not in Birmingham.
Perhaps, the weekend in Birmingham was the ultimate lesson in Vanessa’s guide to Live Sincerely. I got to spend an incredible time with her (and Billy) but I had to live sincerely doing it. There were no tears over Vanessa, there was no guarantee of a next time. It was living sincerely in the moment and being thankful for that moment.
|Clowning with my sisters|
Vanessa~ Thank you…from the bottom of my heart and soul, thank you. I love you~Sara
Updated to include a link to The Live Sincerely Project post in which Vanessa’s sister, Jessica, mentions part of my post. It is a great post that touches some of the same feelings I have…but be sure to check out the family photos at the end – hilarious!
[I first met today's guest blogger at the SCAR Cincinnati Exhibition in 2011. Amber Crouse was one of the about 20 SCAR girls who made that first exhibition outside of the Big Apple so freaking amazing. For me, it was life-changing. One of the things that struck the most beautiful chord, which I can still hear to this day, was the delightful pleasure and deeply felt honor of getting to see the sisterhood of the SCAR girls. They. LOVE. each other. David Jay has said The SCAR Project is really not about breast cancer but about humanity and the scars that unite us all. I find that to be... so beautiful and true... and The SCAR Project Exhibition... such a profound visual aid... because the SCAR girls (portraits) don't just hang on the wall next to each other... the SCAR girls hang out together. Many of them hadn't met in person before the Cincinnati exhibition but you would never know that they haven't been friends forever. Their SCARs have united them and bound them together, much like the stars and stripes wrapped around the girls in the portrait below. A picture is worth a thousand words, but I know many are curious about the story behind the photo of the four women draped in an American flag. I know, for one thing, because I sure as hell was. For another thing, people are always asking me about it. Since I was lucky enough to catch up with Amber at the Birmingham Exhibition I asked her to share the F*ck C*ncer Posse story here. Their story, is to the SCAR girls story, is to the sisterhood of this bitch that is breast cancer. It's the club you don't ever want to sign up for, but once you're in it, you don't want to leave. It's a lot like Hotel California I guess;) Beyond all that, the story of the F*ck C*ncer Posse, is to The SCAR Project, is to the humanity that unites us all. Thank you Amber for baring your SCARs and your story.]
When I was diagnosed with Breast cancer in June of 2006 I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. I went to The Cancer Support Community to a support group made up of much older women. I was 34 at the time, and they were all well over 50. They were really great and I appreciated their encouragement, but I needed to talk to someone in my shoes. Someone my age.
Lucky for me, later that year I met Kate. It was a day I will never forget. I walked into the chemo room and was surprised to see someone my age. She was 35. Without any introduction she looked up at me and said something like, “Dang girl, how big ya going?”
I liked her immediately. I explained that my expanders were horrible. One was lower than the other one and you could set a beer on the shelf that was my left expander. I had to wear a very padded bra so you couldn’t see that mess which made me look like I was going for a size D on my size 0-2 frame. We ended up leaving the chemo bar (as my good friend and F*ck C*ncer Posse member Karson calls it) with my husband Steve and her boyfriend and went to have lunch. We started speaking on the phone regularly.
We had no idea that we had just started what would become a much larger group of young women with breast cancer in Knoxville, Tennessee.
In March of 2007 Kate and I met Melissa at a retreat for Breast Cancer survivors at one of our local hospitals. She had a hippie, music loving vibe to her and I knew we would be fast friends. Her nickname is Giggles. How can you not love a giggler? We started going to shows together and I took her to Bonnaroo while we were both still in treatment. Quite an adventure and endurance challenge. She is a dancing machine and so much fun to be around. We chat almost daily online and see each other regularly. We act a lot like sisters.
Not long after we met Melissa we met yet another Melissa, or Em, as we call her now. Both the Melissas are geologists. They both had friends volunteering in Africa who kept talking about a Melissa in Knoxville with breast cancer. They thought it was the same person but turns out it was two people with parallel lives. They arranged to have beers and catch a concert at a local bar. I met up with them and we talked, laughed, and danced our butts off. These days Em’s off teaching and finishing up her PhD in Oregon. We miss her a lot, but she came to visit recently, and we all got to ring in the new year with her. Of course it was a blast having the whole FC Posse together again.
Karson was next to be added to our Posse and our name derived from something her husband said. He was telling someone that he couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because his wife’s cancer posse would kick his ass. I’m sure it was something funny. Jason is a great guy and I wish I could remember what it was. We always said Fuck Cancer and so The Fuck Cancer Posse was born. Karson is now in the IV club, which means that she has stage IV metastatic breast cancer. Karson is an awesomely sweet, kind, and gentle soul. She’s our girl and we all love her!
Melissa had read the call for SCAR models on the Young Survivor Coalition page that David had posted. She contacted him and asked if we could do a group shot and he said yes. There were supposed to be 6 of us: Kate, Em, Melissa, Me, plus a couple more FC Posse girls: Karson and Brynn, who couldn’t make the trip to NYC for the photo shoot.
Two days before the 2008 election, we were in his studio taking our shirts off. David had the idea to drape us in the American flag. Three of us were not very keen on the idea for different reasons. But then he explained that we were on the eve of a very big election and he was hoping there could be a chance for universal health care. “Framing” our picture in that context, he said he wanted to show that here are these 4 women under 35 (2 under 30) in the greatest country in the world but there is no guaranteed health coverage for them. So we did it. And it is beautiful. (Thank you, David.) I’m so proud to be a part of it and to have these great women for friends.
Steve and I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama last week for the opening of The SCAR Project and The Alabama Project: The Civil Rights of Health Care at UAB’s Visual Arts Gallery. I was happy to meet new SCAR/BAMA sisters, and to see Vanessa, our SCAR sister that is in hospice care. Please check out The Live Sincerely Project and read Vanessa’s story, then take the pledge with The FC Posse to Live Sincerely.
I wish David’s wish had already come true and that we already had universal health care in place now. Strides are being made to try to get more coverage to more people in this country, but it is still not enough. To see these VERY young women struggling to get adequate care is infuriating. They deserve better. We all deserve better!
We met Brigid almost 3 years ago when she joined The FC Posse. We became really good friends and she was my date for the SCAR Cincinnati opening. She has since become our SCAR sister as well. Brigid is sweet, lovely, a good listener, and a kick ass clothing designer.
No one really wants to join our Posse because you have to have cancer to be in it. But if you’ve got cancer, the F*ck C*ncer Posse is the group to be in. We’re all willing to chat with newly diagnosed ladies or gents, cook a meal or more for someone having surgery, give a ride to chemo or a shoulder to cry on. We raise funds and we throw parties. We do have “honorary memberships” for loved ones and caregivers. There are so many more great ladies in Knoxville (and beyond) that are part of our FC Posse like Sarah, Julie, Kristi, Brynn, our dearly departed friend Melissa who was our 6th Posse member, and there are many more… you know who you are. The FC Posse is always here for each other. The FC Posse has got each other’s backs. Click HERE to join the F*ck C*ncer Posse on Facebook.
[With The SCAR Project premiering in Birmingham this week, quite a few of the SCAR girls are heading south with the birds and tide...and the blazers for the cocktail party artist reception this Friday night at UAB's Visual Arts Gallery. SCAR girl Sara is one of the many flocking together for the event. She worked out her pre-flight details in today's guest post, which is also published on her blog: That Girl...tales from the edge.]
by Sara Bartosiewicz-Hamilton
This is my life…I had my implants removed mid-December…based on how I felt, I didn’t think I would be ready. At first, I thought I wouldn’t be ready because I would be self-conscious. After the fact, I thought I wouldn’t be ready because I wasn’t recovering as quickly. Either way, I thought I would not be going to the latest SCAR Project exhibit…and then…I woke up Friday with this urge. I wanted to be with my SCAR family…I wanted to see the photos…I wanted to be there. So, I texted my hubby who was getting off his 12 hour shift and headed to sleep in the parking lot of his barber until the shop opened…
I need an honest opinion of trying to go to Birmingham for a few days next week for the SCAR exhibit – I can’t explain it. I just feel the need to go.
And I just waited…I know I am spontaneous. I can change in a moment. Ahhh, such is life with me. The heart-warming part is the part where my hubby tries to understand, doesn’t always get there but has learned it is usually best to just let me go in whatever direction I’m trying…it may not work but NOT trying is usually worse. I was prepared for his opinion that this may not be best, I’m still not fully recovered…and, I had told myself, if this was his opinion, I needed to listen to him. Thankfully, he got home and told me to buy the ticket…do you know how quickly this can be done??? Within fifteen minutes, actually…flight booked, hotel called. And I’m headed to BAMA!!
This exhibit is a bit different – it started yesterday, the gala event isn’t until Friday. What this means? I’m not arriving until Thursday but am seeing photo after photo of the pictures being hung. I’m going NUTS!!! I just want to be there…I want to take them all in…each time is a little different, who is hanging, who they are hanging by. This time we have new photos and new sisters to welcome. I.can.NOT.wait.
So, I guess I’m doing a bit of my prep work here…online. And, I thought I would share with everyone else what this is like…in all sincerity, I truly believe EVERY single person in the world should be able to experience a SCAR Project exhibit because it is like no other. The photos grab you…meeting people…the love in the room…we love each other like family…the kind of family you actually want to be around. The SCAR models talk about the photos, we talk about our journeys but we really want to talk to you. What made you come see the exhibit? How did you hear about it? What do you think? Do you have cancer? Did you? Have you been touched by cancer? Maybe a friend…a cousin…your mom…tell me about your experience. Tell me what the photos mean to you from the perspective of your journey. It becomes one major love-fest and every single time I walk away blown away by the people I had the honor to meet and the stories I was able to hear.
The first exhibit, I was too nervous…I was welling up…and I am an ugly-crier. So, when the exhibit came to Cincinnati (still had to spell that twice to get it right!), I went to the gallery the moment I arrived. I thought if I was around the photos, I could get those emotions moving so I could be composed at the event. It worked. You know the feeling of coming home to your own bed after a trip? That’s the feeling I get when I walk into a gallery with the SCAR photos. I know the stories and the person behind most of the photos…I want you to love them as much as I do. But it also makes me reflect on my BRCA journey and the impact cancer has had on my life and in the lives of those I cherish…so it is a lot flying through my mind.
Those emotions are flying as I watch the pictures go up on facebook of the photos being hung in the gallery. The space is beautiful, as always. The photos grab me. I am “awww”ing at who is being hung by whom. I am wanting to reach out and touch the photo of my friend Gabrielle who was with me the day my photograph was taken…I am wanting to hug a SCAR sister as we look at Jolene’s photo.
I have never met or heard of anyone who was not changed by attending the exhibit.
I am incredibly excited. Can you tell?
People are never sure what to expect. I understand completely. Before the first exhibit, I was seriously stressed. What do I wear? What will it be like? Will I know anyone? I was grateful to have my youngest sister go with me and met up with two of my SCAR sisters who had their photographs taken on the same day so we knew each other. I didn’t even worry about my attire this time – I’m more concerned with every OTHER day since I haven’t figured out my summer attire with no implants…it is winter in Michigan so I can pull off a scarf every day.
Wear what you are comfortable in. You want to be in full on cocktail attire? You will fit in. You are more comfortable in jeans? You will fit in. Somewhere in between? You.will.fit.in. The reality is the photos take center stage and I don’t remember what anyone wears. Often times, I don’t remember what I am wearing until I start being tagged in photos. I actually changed into soccer slides last year because I had ridiculous heels on that I was not making it in. So, perhaps that is my one caution, wear shoes you want to be standing in for four or more hours. We’ll see if I’ve made the right choice this time.
|I’m not on the wall but I will sign
my photo in the book!!
I am so excited because a different sister will be joining me. Sharing this with those I love is like sharing one of the most sacred places of my heart. There is a bond with everyone in that room – I hope you are able to come. It is definitely not something you want to miss.
I will see you in Birmingham, Alabama!! (I am thankful I can spell this location without issue!!)
[If you are in the area, please be our guest at the artist reception Friday night. The event is free but please R.S.V.P. Click HERE for more info and to R.S.V.P. to the event.]
[David Jay prefers being behind the camera, not to mention, behind the scenes, when it comes to The SCAR Project. His preference is to let the young women confronting their own absolute reality of surviving cancer, speak their own thousand words or so through their SCAR portraits. His preference is definitely not having a microphone in the way of his camera. So you can't imagine the ninja skills I had to implement to track down a few A's to the many Q's enquiring minds want to know about SCAR Project photographer David Jay. I met David Jay at the 2010 world premiere of The SCAR Project in NYC. Working with David, SCAR Cincy girl Vanessa Tiemeier, and art gallery owner Litsa Spanos to bring the exhibition to Cincinnati in 2011 was one of the most beautiful, meaningful things I've ever had the honor and pleasure to be a part of. David's had rather a difficult time getting rid of me ever since, since I've stayed on with the project to help other people bring the exhibition to other cities. I also manage this blog, which is the ruse I used to snag him for a few moments to "hold this microphone" while I type.]
Q: Fashion photographer, by day, David, I’m sure you can appreciate the irony with me, and many, I’m sure, wondering how in the world a fashion photographer started shooting portraits of young women baring their scars from confronting breast cancer?
A: It’s very ironic isn’t it? I actually never intended to shoot The SCAR Project. It began very organically seven years ago after my dear friend Paulina was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 29. Within two weeks she’d had a mastectomy. A beautiful, strong, young woman, I had taken Paulina’s picture a hundred times since she was 17. Months after her surgery, when she finally returned to our yoga class, her leotard clearly defining the space where her breast has been I knew I had to take her picture again. I took her picture because, perhaps as a photographer, taking pictures is my way of confronting, understanding, and accepting the things I see. When I began doing this, I was simply dealing with my own pain in watching my friend’s suffering. I had no idea what was going to happen and how much it would grow and evolve over the years.
A: She is happily married with 2 children, living peacefully on a large farm in Australia.
Q: Are you still shooting SCAR portraits? How many have you shot to date?
A: I began shooting The SCAR Project in 2005 with Paulina . . . then her friends from chemotherapy wanted their portraits taken . . . and I have not stopped. Nearly 100 young women have been photographed so far. They journey across the country—and the world—to have their portraits taken and to participate in The SCAR Project. There are 35 large-scale portraits in the exhibition, and 50 pictures in the book, The SCAR Project: Breast Cancer is Not a Pink Ribbon. The book is available on Amazon. There are many more images on The SCAR Project web site.
Q: Will there be a second book?
A: I hope so!
Q: Why do you continue shooting new subjects for The SCAR Project? When will, or will, the project ever be complete?
A: The SCAR Project in general is photographically complete. I do still add images occasionally but these days they tend to be reserved for some of the most unfortunate (very aggressive, extremely time sensitive) situations. So with that in consideration….until there is a cure, I suppose it may never be fully “complete”.
Q: What is your goal with The SCAR Project?
A: Presented primarily an awareness raising campaign for young women, The SCAR Project’s deeper message is one of humanity. The acceptance of all that life offers us . . . all the beauty . . . all the suffering too . . . with grace, courage, empathy, and understanding. Ultimately, The SCAR Project is not about breast cancer, but the human condition itself; the images intend to transcend the disease, illuminating the scars that unite us all.
Q: You have been shooting fashion photography for over 20 years. During the SCAR Project shoots, has there been a moment that has particularly caught you off guard, maybe shocked you with its backhanded beauty? Can you share one of those unforgettable experiences in shooting The SCAR Project?
A: I am never shocked . . . but always moved. An unforgettable moment? Perhaps during the shoot of Sarah, the red haired woman with tears running down her face. The shoot was going well. The pictures looked good, honest. There was laughter. I was pleased with the images we had captured. I loaded the pictures into the computer and called Sarah over to look. She came and stood behind me in silence. Then tears. Mine too. I grabbed the camera again . . . “Now, we take pictures.”
There is something about photography that’s very real. We’re so accustomed to seeing ourselves in a mirror but that reflection is actually reversed. A photograph isn’t. That’s why it’s often shocking to see yourself in a photograph—it’s not what you see in the mirror every day. It’s what everyone else sees. In that moment, Sarah came face to face with herself. She’d had a double mastectomy in her mid-20’s. It was shocking for her.
Q: The pictures are shocking for many to see. Not many photographers deal with hard subjects like breast cancer. How do you approach such a difficult subject, and the women bearing their scars, with your camera?
A: I struggled shooting The SCAR Project. I was torn. I wanted the pictures to be raw, honest, and sincere. Yet I knew why the subjects had come—they wanted something beautiful. They had already suffered greatly and although I wanted to serve them, I knew in my heart that compromising the visual integrity of The SCAR Project for the sake of easily digested beauty would serve no one. Certainly not the people I hoped to be impacted by the images, the public at large who remain blissfully unaware of the risk or reality of the disease . . . anesthetized by pink ribbons and fluffy, pink teddy bears.
Q: Which brings us to the tagline . . . “Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon” . . . Are you against pink ribbons? How and why did you choose this tagline?
A: Hundreds of thousands of people have viewed these images and I have yet to meet anyone who has said they previously knew what breast cancer looked like. Really looked like. In our society breast cancer is hidden away behind a little pink ribbon. The public needs to be educated.
Many women dislike the pink ribbon. They resent the commercialization of breast cancer that it represents. One of the SCAR Project subjects said to me, “If a man got prostate cancer, do you think someone would give him a pink t-shirt and teddy bear?” It (unintentionally) diminishes something that is terrifying, disfiguring, and deadly.
Q: There’s a fine line between awareness and fear. Your portraits show beautiful young women confronting this terrifying, disfiguring, and deadly disease. How do you maintain this balance in your photography? Do you feel like The SCAR Project maintains this balance, or does it cause unnecessary fear?
A: Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in young women ages 15-40. Fear is unnecessary but awareness and education are extremely necessary. The SCAR Project participants range in ages from 18-38 and represent this often overlooked group of young women living with breast cancer.
Q: The SCAR Project exhibition premiered in NYC in 2010, then traveled to Cincinnati and back to NYC again in 2011. What has been the public’s response to the images and The SCAR Project? Have you received many complaints about the exhibition being uncomfortable to view?
A: It can be uncomfortable for the viewer. It forces us to confront our fears and inhibitions about life, death, sexuality, sickness, relationships, etc. I once read it described as “unflinching.” Reality is not always pretty. This is reality. Let’s address it. The SCAR Project presents an opportunity to open a dialogue about issues we are not necessarily comfortable with. From the overwhelming responses we’ve received at the exhibitions and on the Facebook page, though, it’s a very necessary dialogue these young women have been bold enough to begin, because this is the absolute reality young women surviving cancer are dealing with every day.
Q: The SCAR Project captures so many different women at various points in their journeys of confronting breast cancer, with different choices made, different scars, different realities. Some women, like Paulina, have only one breast. Some women have been shot before or have chosen not to pursue reconstruction. Some women bare their reconstructions, the good, the bad and the ugly. With the way society values, idolizes beauty, is our society prepared to see beauty in images like yours?
A: When I first began shooting The SCAR Project I didn’t know if anyone would want to look at the pictures. I didn’t care and shot them anyway. Seven years later and I think I have an answer. I think society is not only prepared for images like this (and what they represent) I think they are starved for it. When The SCAR Project Exhibition premiered in NYC no one walked by the gallery without coming in. Thousands of people came in. It was like a beautiful, heart wrenching magnet. There are now more than 26,000 people on The SCAR Project’s Facebook page. Millions have gone to its website. A documentary about it: “Baring It All” premiered on the Style Network in July 2011, and has since been aired around the world, was recently awarded a 2012 daytime EMMY.
Q: You brought up the very next question–The EMMY–How was that experience for you and filmmaker Patty Zagarella? What is it like to own an Emmy now?
A: It’s still quite surreal! I’m still looking for a big enough gold chain so I can wear it around my neck! But in all sincerity, I have Patty and her team to thank for making such a beautiful documentary. We were beyond humbled and thrilled to have such recognition for the film and for The SCAR Project.
Q: So many women, both subjects of The SCAR Project and viewers have come to you and said that the images have changed their lives: given them the will and strength to fight for their life, renewed their relationships with their friends, significant others, and most importantly, within themselves. What is it like to hear that?
A: It is not possible for me to convey how deeply humbled I am that the images of The SCAR Project have impacted them so deeply. It is difficult for me to respond. I prefer to let the girls speak. I am only a vehicle, a medium that allows them to expose their truth. That’s all that is going on. On some level I am just a terribly empathetic person who is able to catch a glimpse of the subject’s soul through the camera, the soul of a woman in this case.
The soul of humanity—that’s what I’m trying to capture . . . to catalyze that in the subject . . . and push the button in that moment.
Q: You can’t take these pictures and not be affected by the women and their stories. We can’t view the images and not catch a glimpse of what inspired you from behind the camera lens. Can you share one of the women who have particularly inspired you beyond the lens?
A: One woman who will always be very special to me is Jolene. Jolene was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 17. Jolene took a bus across the country, from California to NYC to be photographed for The SCAR Project. She was 18 at the time. Unfortunately the cancer returned, having spread throughout her body. It was particularly aggressive, and relentless, having spread to her jaw, which they had to remove and try to reconstruct. A tumor then grew near her skull, pressing on her brain and causing her to have strokes. She asked me to take her SCAR portrait again. I flew out to California to photograph her. It was a beautiful but emotionally difficult shoot. Jolene was on a journey, which we knew, unless something drastically changed, was going to end relatively soon. She was in a wheel-chair, and basically on home care. The disease had completely transformed her body and life.
Knowing that it would be the last picture I would ever take of her. It was a very poignant moment.
Jolene was to be the guest of honor at last year’s SCAR Project exhibition in NYC. She had spent her final months and days looking forward to attending, as friends from all over the country were trying to help her make one last wish come true. Unfortunately, Jolene was not well enough to make the trip and she passed away Oct. 30, 2011.
But despite all of this, Jolene was one of the most inspiring women I have ever known. She was courageous, compassionate, and loving. It’s a reminder to us all to be present, to be grateful for what we have . . . even if it appears to be little. She reminds us . . . educates us . . . showed us . . . how it is not only possible but so important to both live and die with beauty, grace, and dignity.
Q: What has it been like for you, not just as a photographer, but as a human being, to have documented, photographically, subjects like Jolene until their death?
A: I seem to have a different perspective on life and death. That does not discount the reality that their paths, like Jolene’s, and now Vanessa’s, are very disturbing. However, I find a certain peace within the construct of death. And though there is no peace in a young girl dying, I suppose I’m trying to express my own perspective–that there is a serenity and acceptance … To me, death is the easy part. The hard part is living. And because I have that perspective, I strive within my work . . . within my given days, to attain not only peace in my own life . . . but to hopefully share and inspire the same in those I come into contact with . . . no matter how briefly.
Also, most people don’t have the luxury of knowing they’re dying, and just as it may appear to be a tragedy…it’s only a tragedy for those that are left behind. Obviously cancer is a terrible way to live, as well as to die, but “living sincerely”, and living in every moment as if it’s a gift that could be taken away at any moment, (as Vanessa has done and continues to do until her death), is what it’s all about. In a way, the knowledge of her impending death has ignited a will to live…to truly LIVE, as fully as she possibly can. And she is trying to show us how we can do that, too, with The Live Sincerely Project.
Q: How has shooting The SCAR Project evolved you, as a photographer and personally?
A: The things that can seem so unbearable, the things that seem like the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to you will absolutely be the best thing that has ever happened to you . . . if you allow it. We as humans tend to procrastinate doing the things we need to do in life. We put things off, look the other way, surrender to our insecurity and fears. But Mother Nature will always have her way with us . . . forcing our hand . . . forcing us to live up to our own true potential. You can choose to live up to it . . . or die mired in it. This I know for sure, both from my own life and from photographing these women.
Q: This brings up yet another mysterious and fascinating aspect of you. Your understanding of beauty. You have a very sexual yet elegant style to your fashion photography, and ultimately it is beautiful; you capture the flawless sexuality of a woman. And yet, within The SCAR Project photographs, of young women who have lost their hair, lost their breasts, you capture equally poignant beauty within those photographs too. In your fashion photography you capture a visual image of beauty, and with The SCAR Project you capture a visual image of beauty from the inside out. Usually a photographer can do one or the other end of the spectrum. Do you ever think about that? Is it challenging to go from one to the other?
A: Never. I honestly do not see a distinction between the two. It’s all the same. I shoot the women for SCAR in the same way I shoot fashion. And my insecurities and doubt as to whether I got a good shot are the same with both. Every single time, I want to throw down the camera and give up. I am convinced that anyone, ANYONE, could take a better picture than me.
The SCAR Project is not about taking beautiful pictures of women with breast cancer. I’m not going to just show half the story—that everything’s going to be fine and these girls have breast cancer but the will just go on with their lives—because that’s not the case. I wish that was the case but the reality is that some of these girls are dying and it’s important to have their story out there as well because that is the reality of the disease. As difficult as it is to look at the portraits in the gallery, it’s important that they are there.
Q: Besides The SCAR Project and your day job of shooting fashion photography, anything else on the horizon for David Jay?
A: We are currently working on a dual exhibition to premiere in Birmingham, Alabama this January. The Alabama Project began earlier this year after someone told me about a young woman named Leah, living in Alabama. Her story is compelling not only because of her young age, but also due to her struggle with health insurance and the effect it was having on her fight with breast cancer. I quickly discovered that there were several more young women in the area with very similar struggles and I knew it was a subject I wanted to address (and stories I wanted to tell) photographically.
Whereas most of The SCAR Project images are very portrait-like in nature, I wanted The Birmingham Project to be more documentary in its style. I wanted to capture these women throughout their day-to-day life: from the hospital room, to the MRI room, to their living room. The time I spent with them in Birmingham was a very special and eye opening experience. Their generosity in allowing me to step into their personal lives was incredibly moving. Here were young women in their 20s, fighting not only a terrifying disease but facing the additional struggle of finding and sustaining the proper healthcare to help them in their fight. And yet despite their challenges, what was most profound during our time together, was seeing a common thread of faith, perseverance and beauty. A love of life in every one of them.
And in addition to The Alabama Project, I have begun shooting what I like to call “SCAR Project 2.0″, The Unknown Soldier. Very similar to The SCAR Project, The Unknown Soldier will focus on young men and women (under 30 years old) who have survived severe/disfiguring injuries in the Afghanistan war. I recently shot the first picture for The Unknown Soldier, a 27 year old marine named Michael Fox.
Our time together was incredibly special and I have a feeling this next photographic journey will be an incredible one.
[Today's guest post about The Alabama Project is by Cynthia Ryan. Cynthia is one of the co-producers of the upcoming dual exhibition in Birmingham, Alabama. The Alabama Project Exhibition will accompany The SCAR Project Exhibition at University of Alabama's Visual Arts Gallery during its commemoration of the Civil Rights 50th Anniversary. Cynthia Ryan, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a freelance writer. Check out her blog HERE. Besides all that, she also has been quite busy personally kicking breast cancer's ass for the past 20 years. Namaste Cynthia. *Bows to your awesomeness* as I humbly hand you the microphone, the quill, the keyboard if you will. P.S. thank you.]
Guest Post by Cynthia Ryan
At 49, I’m twenty years into survivorship following my first bout with breast cancer. It’s been quite a ride, made all the more interesting since I joined The Alabama Project.
In September, David contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in writing about the experiences of five young breast cancer survivors from my adopted state of Alabama. He’d traveled to Birmingham and surrounding communities to photograph Leah, Brittney, Melanie, Whitni and Raquel, all diagnosed in their teens or twenties. These photos were different than the portraits associated with The Scar Project. They documented Alabama survivors going about their everyday lives, and all had stories to share regarding their unique journeys through the disease.
Taking on the challenges of survivorship day by day was an approach I knew something about. At 29, breast cancer became the backdrop to everything in my life. While existential questions about the meaning of life and death lingered, I had no choice but to preoccupy myself with the matters of surviving.
As many survivors will tell you, time and energy are swallowed up by the breast cancer experience. Visits to oncologists, surgeons, radiologists, social workers. Arrangements with family and friends for transport to said appointments and assistance with daily responsibilities as exhaustion and frustration settle in. Treasured downtime to heal body and soul.
By the time I reached 40 and a second diagnosis of breast cancer, my plate runneth over. Married with two daughters, 5-year-old Celia and 2-year-old Helena. A full-time job and pressure to keep on publishing. A new city and no extended family in sight.
It’s the getting through the everyday that challenges many breast cancer survivors and their loved ones and that, too often, gets relegated to the trivial. After all, we survivors are reminded to keep our minds on the big picture—completing recommended therapies, accepting a new normal, moving forward with our lives after breast cancer. Learning how to navigate the initial diagnosis and treatment plan and how to reach what lies beyond with our senses in-tact is far from peripheral, though. It’s as much a part of living as the promised restitution that may or may not become a reality for many of us.
Through the eyes of the Alabama women, I’ve discovered the kind of strength that every breast cancer survivor demonstrates both because she recognizes the importance of the life lessons the experience presents and because she must. Painful procedures must be endured. Bills must, somehow, be paid, with or without the grace of health insurance. Hope must be offered to our children. A new image must be confronted in the mirror.
[The Birmingham Exhibition will premiere January 7 and run till January 31. For more info, check out the press release HERE.]
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
THE SCAR PROJECT: BREAST CANCER IS NOT A PINK RIBBON
THE ALABAMA PROJECT: THE CIVIL RIGHTS OF HEALTH CARE
TO PREMIERE IN BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA JANUARY 7-31, 2013
Birmingham, Alabama—December 6, 2012—Two groundbreaking photographic exhibitions shot by fashion photographer David Jay are set to premiere at University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Visual Arts Gallery: The SCAR Project: Breast Cancer Is Not A Pink Ribbon and The Alabama Project: The Civil Rights of Health Care.
The dual exhibition opens January 7 and runs through January 31, 2013. There will be a ticketed opening night gala on January 11, 5-9pm. General admission to the exhibitions, is free. Private gallery tours with photographer David Jay will be available. Regular screenings of Baring It All, the EMMY Award winning documentary about The SCAR Project will be shown throughout the exhibition.
The SCAR Project is a series of large-scale portraits of young women confronting breast cancer shot by fashion photographer David Jay. The SCAR Project puts a raw, unflinching face on young women and breast cancer while paying tribute to the courage and spirit of the many brave, young women fighting this disease. The SCAR Project subjects range in age from 18-35 and represent the often overlooked, group of young women living with breast cancer in our country today. They’ve journeyed from across America and the world to be photographed for The SCAR Project. More than 100 women have been photographed thus far.
The Alabama Project: The Civil Rights of Health Care is a subset of The SCAR Project. In this project Jay documents a group of young women in Alabama, all in their twenties, battling not only breast cancer but the healthcare system itself. From hospital room to the living room, Jay’s poignant images capture each woman’s faith, perseverance, and beauty.
Producers: Cynthia Ryan, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, UAB Birmingham & John Thomas Fields, Interim Director, UAB Visual Arts Gallery.
Sponsored by: University of Alabama at Birmingham, Susan G Komen North Central Alabama & Susan Mott Webb Charitable Trust
Contact: Cynthia Ryan email: email@example.com phone: 205.934.8600
[If you've seen the EMMY award winning SCAR Project documentary Baring It All by EMMY award winning filmmaker Patricia Zagarella, then you've already met the fabulous Sylvia Soo. She's one of the fab four SCAR girls featured in the film. If you haven't seen it... well... let's just end that madness with the word "YET" —Ahem, if you haven't seen it YET then it's not to late! Just head over to your local Amazon by clicking HERE, then add it to your cart, press Proceed to Checkout, and voilà! Baring it All follows David Jay on an excursion from his life as fashion photographer into a world of young women scarred by breast cancer. Sylvia's story, her absolute reality of surviving cancer as a young, beautiful, not to mention, fabulous, single woman, is not one most people would even think of when they think of breast cancer. For instance, Sylvia looks straight into the camera and says quite candidly, "How are you supposed to bring that up? Somebody asks you out on a date. Oh, by the way, I don't have any hair and I have one breast." Unfortunately, these days more and more young women are facing what they, we, even many doctor's, all "thought" was "our grandmother's disease". That's why The SCAR Project exists, that's why David Jay takes their SCAR portraits, and that's why these young women bare their scars. Sylvia and her sister SCAR girls face the camera the same way they faced breast cancer: with beauty, courage, style, grace, and fabulousness. Yes, it's shocking to see breast cancer exposed like this, but... deeper than the shock... it's inspiring to see what lies beneath the pink ribbons: S.C.A.R.s—not scarlet letters but badges of honor—these young women wear proudly and bravely bare in their SCAR Project Portraits. If that's not cancer fabulous I don't know what is. With that, I'd like to hand the microphone over to my fab friend Sylvia. Besides being fabulous herself, she manages the Cancer Fabulous web site where she encourages others to be cancer fabulous themselves, she's working on a book called Cancer Fabulous Diaries, AND she has a short film called Dear Sister which is up for a prize for Rethink Breast Cancer's Breast Fest coming up this November. All in a fab days work, yeah?! Anyway, please check out Dear Sister and vote for her fab flick HERE for the win! Voting ends September 14. So there's still a few days left to stuff the ballot box for our Cancer Fabulous SCAR Sister Sylvia!]
Guest Post by the cancer FAB Sylvia Soo
I’d invited spoken word artist, Titilope Sonuga to perform at a charity event that I organized in 2010. She didn’t know me at that time, but by reading through my website’s (www.cancerfabulous.com) online diaries she was able to capture the essence of my motto “cancer fabulous.”
(written for Sylvia Soo)
By Titilope Sonuga
Be cancer fabulous
Be bruised battered
but never broken
carve a space
in this world
to love yourself in
even as they carve
through your chest
pump through your veins
wrap you in gauze
hold it up
like a shield
against your heart
nothing to you
when the odds were
one in ten
one in a hundred
one in a thousand
you were that
that one who
clung to life
when it was easier
off bathroom floors
wiped the tears from
last nights food
from your mouth
and did the impossible
refused to lay down
and give up
surrender or retreat
this is what beautiful
it is raw and uncovered
it is bald and stunning
it is twisted and tangled
It is a crocked line of scars
towards a heart
big enough to
love a nation
this is what beautiful
it is what exists
when we are broken
down past ego
when we are faced
with a body that sends
in the form of
a painless lump
when we are forced then
to cling to a soul
that refuses to
this is what beautiful
So you bare your scars
for us to look upon
so that we can trace them
towards our own understanding
remind us that
there are no
for your smile
there is no
there is no cure
you remind us
really looks like
After reading the poem, one blogger wrote: “I honestly see nothing beautiful about cancer nor having to deal with it.” That blogger didn’t get it.
Yes, there is nothing fabulous about cancer. There is nothing fabulous about having your body scarred, having to take chemotherapy or puking in toilets. There is nothing fabulous about watching a loved one die. However, there is something amazingly beautiful and amazingly fabulous when someone goes through such hardship and turmoil with grace and strength. This is what cancer fabulous is about.
Perhaps it is media that has us thinking that cancer patients are weak, frail baldheaded aliens who are just waiting to die. These past three years I have met many inspiring people with such incredible spirit. These women are not ready to throw in the towel, but they fight for their lives. They have something to say. They are not willing to remain silent. Many of these women are subjects of the SCAR Project.
I chanced upon The SCAR Project during a 2009 Google search. I was 25 years old, and had just returned to Canada upon completion of an overseas contract. One week after I returned home, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My surgeon gave me an option to choose a lumpectomy or mastectomy. Nights before my scheduled surgery I found the startling SCAR images, and I decided to have the mastectomy.
With one breast, I forged ahead with my summer. I stepped out into the chemo ward with my stilettos and I held my baldhead high. Time continued and the drugs began to take their toll on my body. I stubbornly mascara-ed the very few eyelashes that were left, and painfully slipped into my dignity. Those were challenging times.
While I was on-set of an independent movie, David Jay and I finalized my plans to fly to New York City and participate in The SCAR Project. Upon leaving set, I flew out to NYC. The photo that was chosen was a candid one (at the top of the page). I remember we were laughing at what someone said. I’m overjoyed that my picture does not depict sadness. My journey was much more than sadness.
These days you’ll find me working on my book, Cancer Fabulous Diaries, a collaboration with Rethink Breast Cancer; planning to become an entrepreneur in 2013, and always planning my next travel destination. Looking back on my life, I am amazed at all that I have been through, and excited for all that is to come.