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Breast Cancer is NOT a Scarlet Letter

[I met today’s guest blogger at the first planning committee meeting for The SCAR Project DC exhibition. I was instantly drawn to Lauren, not just because of her striking though gentle beauty (as you can see in her SCAR portrait below) but also (as you will see when you read her story) because she is a kindred writing spirit. Since getting to know her something else that really puts the L in Lauren, methinks, is best summed up in some lyrics she posted recently on Facebook: “Until the referee rings the bell/Until both your eyes start to swell/Until the crowd goes home/What we gonna do y’all?/Give em hell, turn their heads/Gonna live life ’til we’re dead./Give me scars, give me pain/Then they’ll say to me, say to me, say to me/There goes the fighter, there goes the fighter/Here comes the fighter/That’s what they’ll say to me, say to me, say to me/This one’s a fighter.”* Which is summed up perfectly, methinks in the slideshow I’ve added at the end of her guest post.]

Guest Post by SCAR Girl Lauren

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As a healthy and active young woman, I was under the impression or, in hindsight the delusion, that I was impervious to life-threatening illnesses or events. I simply believed that if I worked hard and was a good person that life would reciprocate in kind. So when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2009 at age twenty-eight, while my husband was on his second tour in Iraq, you could imagine that my naive “vie en rose” attitude quickly shattered. I was left asking the question “why?” Why had this happened to me given that breast cancer is considered an affliction of the post-menopausal woman? Had I done something wrong during my early years (an occasional drink too-many in college) or did I have some genetic component lurking in the family pool that I didn’t know about? But like so many women slapped in the face by cancer, I didn’t have much time to dwell on these feelings. A bilateral mastectomy on October 16th quickly made me realize that shitty things can happen to good people and that there was simply no rationale for it.

Looking into the mirror for the first time after my surgery was a truly humbling experience and visually captured, for me, what “surviving” cancer really meant. That whoever I once was, I would never physically be again, that my new corporeality was an altered one that I would have to get used to. Removing the gauze pads revealed swollen water-filled pseudo breasts and bruises around my incisions. I no longer had nipples, but in their place I had angry looking scars. The one on the right ran the length of my breast and curved up toward my armpit in a smirk, a fitting visage for the “diseased” betrayer of my body. The left breast had a small straight line, like a mute partner guilty by proxy. I also had drains protruding from under my arms, the bulbous grenade portion of which was cradled in a little fabric belt that was slung around my waist. I felt alien, ugly and more like some macabre B-movie octopus than a woman.  As I inspected myself in the mirror, my husband drew warm water in the pink plastic basin they sent me home with from the hospital. He gingerly took the washcloth, soaped it up and helped to bathe me and wash my hair. I didn’t have the energy to do it myself.

I couldn’t believe the spectacle I saw reflected back at me and I began to cry. I never had to depend on anyone for this kind of daily activity and yet here we were. I get that in our marriage vows we agreed to be there for one another in sickness and in health, but I never imagined that we would test the theory when we were so young. Extremely self-conscious, I wondered how Mark felt to see my body reduced to something unfamiliar and bizarrely reconstructed. How could he find me attractive anymore when I was so changed, having lost those attributes which society deems so intrinsically feminine and esthetic? While such thoughts may seem superficial, addressing the feelings surrounding the physical alterations of my treatment really forced me to reexamine who I was aside from societal standards of beauty and worth. And though it has been a long and particularly emotional struggle to come to terms with my post-cancer body, what I’ve learned on my expedition through illness has been liberating and transformative – especially when it comes to David Jay’s The Scar Project.

I randomly navigated to the website one afternoon, curious as to what breast reconstruction looked like for other women my age. The first portrait I came to was this stunning image of a pregnant woman with a deep scar in place of her right breast, her fair skin radiantly contrasted against a dark backdrop. I remember how strong and unapologetic she looked. “This is who I am” she seemed to say to me from the screen of my laptop. At that moment, hope blossomed. I, who have yet to have children or to learn if that’s even feasible at this point, could now imagine the possibility that cancer had not usurped the opportunity of motherhood from me because there was Emily, as bold and brave as an Amazon, defying cancer and not only living life but creating it too! Her strength and courage, along with the photos and stories of other SCAR models (a shout out to Vanessa, the two Saras, Eliza, and Barbie) have inspired me to participate in the Project so that I too can do my part to increase awareness of young women’s vulnerability to breast cancer.

I consider it an honor to be a SCAR model; that photo shoot with David meant so much to me. For the first time in a long time, I felt beautiful and actually portrayed as who I truly am. I’ve since realized that my scars are not damaging scarlet letters of disease and imperfection so much as they are physical testimonials of my journey upon this earth. My experience with The SCAR Project has not only facilitated the acceptance of my wounds (physical and emotional) to find the beauty, grace and peace from within, it has also allowed me to transform my breast cancer into something powerful that will impact others. Whether that means showing young women with breast cancer that they are not alone in their experience or illustrating what reconstruction can look like – it definitely affirms that the reality of breast cancer has nothing to do with pink ribbons, commercialism, or walking until doomsday. All you have to do is look into a SCAR model’s eyes to grasp what reality is for the women photographed and to sense the collective frustration that we need to find a damn cure already. While I love my fellow SCAR sisters, there are already too many of us (including women in their teens, early twenties and thirties we’ve lost to this disease) for society to maintain the status quo of what they call breast cancer “awareness.”

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Breast Cancer Is Not Politically Correct

When the international SCAR Project exhibition premieres in Washington, DC this October, kicking off Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2012 from our Nation’s Capitol, the timing couldn’t be more perfect if it tried.

Besides pulling the proverbial pink carpet out from under October, the DC exhibition is also smack dab in the heat of election season.

“In the end, by bringing The SCAR Project to our city, we hope to make a strong statement about breast cancer by showing our country what it really looks like,” said Donna Guinn Kaufman, breast cancer survivor, former vice-president of the Tigerlily Foundation (supports young women before, during and after BC) and founder of the Kill the Cancer Beast Foundation (empowering people with cancer to fight), the organization spearheading production of The SCAR Project DC Exhibition. “We hope that The SCAR Project will change the way that people look at this disease, seeing it for what it is, terrifying, disfiguring and deadly, and as such, take real action to end it.”

Last month Kaufman and her planning committee of mostly survivors and previvors kicked things into high gear toward that end at their SCAR Project DC Exhibition Kickoff Fundraiser which was held at The Dunes art gallery. (Thank you for your gracious hosting of the event, Deidree Bennett, Fine Arts Director at The Dunes.)

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(Thank you to all the photographers who covered the event: Kipp Burgoyne, Marcus Bennett, Diane Crawford, Joey Darley, and Mayrev Mary Goren for all your lovely photos. And a special thank you goes out to Kristen Berset, WUSA9 sports anchor and reporter for her graceful emceeing of the event. Also to WUSA9 weekday morning anchor Andrea Roane for her gracious support of The SCAR Project DC Exhibition.)

If I were writing notes on cocktail napkins during the SCAR DC kickoff fundraiser, here’s a few of the highlights I’d have scribbled down:

Breast cancer is a political issue – SCAR DC Producer Donna Guinn Kaufman

Breast cancer is not prejudiced – SCAR girl Heather Salazar (caucasian) adopted her friend’s daughter after her friend (African-American) passed away from breast cancer. Then Heather was also diagnosed with breast cancer.

Breast cancer does not wait until you are “old enough to get breast cancer” – SCAR girl Eliza Hewitt who was diagnosed last year at age 22.

Breast cancer does not care if you are in a wheelchair because you already have Cerebral Palsy. – SCAR girl Sara Boghdan.

Breast cancer is not very patriotic. – SCAR girl Marathon Barbie the Marine who was diagnosed while serving our country in Afghanistan.

Breast cancer does not play fair. -SCAR girl Darcie who shared recent news of her breast cancer’s progression. (Cheers to your health, love, and godspeed beautiful Darcie, as you strive for stable disease once more.)

Breast cancer may SCAR but it does not define those who’ve stared down its ugly face and face their own absolute realities of surviving cancer. And yet, get a bunch of these crazy ass kicking cancer chicks in a room together sharing their SCARs and all I can say is cancer better watch out. One of these chicks is a marine and the rest of the women in the room have her back.

With that said, here’s the drill for the SCAR Project DC Exhibition:

Monday, October 1, the first day of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Kaufman is organizing a “Young Women Surviving Breast Cancer Day on Capitol Hill.” Kaufman is arranging meetings for any young women who can make the event to meet with their Senators and Representatives while young women in SCAR DC  t-shirts deliver invites for The SCAR Project DC Exhibition to members of Congress and and their staff on Capitol Hill.

Monday evening, The SCAR Project DC will host a VIP Reception/Press Conference by invitation only from 6:30 to 8 p.m. to kickoff the exciting week of DC Exhibition events and introduce The SCAR Project to the nation’s Capitol.

The DC Exhibition will open to the public the same day Monday, October 1 and will run until Sunday, October 7. General admission hours will be from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (except for during ticketed gallery tours with the photographer, Monday evening VIP Reception/Press Conference and Thursday evening’s Black & White Opening Night Gala). The price of general admission is FREE.

There will be daily gallery tours with SCAR Project Photographer David Jay, and when possible, various SCAR girls will be available for Q&A. Stay tuned for a schedule of gallery tours TBA.

A Black & White Opening Night Gala will be held on Thursday, October 4. Tickets must be purchased in advance on the Eventbrite link below. A special discounted price is offered for a pair of tickets purchased before September 1. Also a special “Buy a Ticket for a Survivor” at a discounted price is offered so no survivor who wants to go to the gala is left behind.

On Friday, October 5 after the gallery closes for the day there will be a special ticketed After Hours Party with the SCAR crowd.

On Saturday, October 6 Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Patricia Zagarella will be on hand for a special screening of her EMMY Award-winning SCAR Project documentary, Baring It All. Zagarella, David Jay, and a few of the SCAR girls will be available for a Q&A session afterward.

Tickets for all events are now LIVE  on Eventbrite-Click HERE.

For more info and/or to keep posted on The SCAR Project DC exhibition join The SCAR DC Facebook Group. Contact SCAR DC Producer Donna Guinn Kaufman at dgkaufman@killthecancerbeast.com or 703.489.2727.

Anomaly Yours, Eliza

[I met today’s guest blogger at her SCAR photo shoot in DC this past spring when the cherry blossoms were all abloom and decking out DC for its annual festival. How. Very. Apropos. Methought as I watched this beautiful, courageous, WAY TOO FREAKING YOUNG woman bare her S.C.A.R.s for the camera. At first glance, Eliza’s bright blue-eyes distracted me from the fresh red “angry scars”—as she calls them. Her absolute reality of surviving cancer is as different from mine as my scars are from hers. Mine have faded a bit, as I’m a wee bit (ok, OK… she’s exactly HALF my age but TWICE me in wisdom and stature) older than my younger survivor sister. Mine look more like Japanese symbols for WTF? and are therefore not nearly as angry—though I definitely see red when I see hers. I’ve read before that “the fragility of the cherry blossom is the fragility of human existence.” This was just poetry before I met Eliza. She is currently the youngest of the SCAR girls. Eliza just finished grad school in May and turned 23 in June. Oh, and is planning a wedding. While fighting cancer in her spare time, after being diagnosed earlier this year at twenty-freaking-two. She calls herself an anomaly. I just call her awesome. As I’ve gotten to know Eliza I’ve come to see that beneath that beautiful pale skin is fierce hope unfading, which the sunlight dancing upon it only highlights.]

Guest Post by Eliza Hewitt

 

Eliza and Thomas at graduation… and they’re off… planning a wedding for sometime next year… once she’s finished her Ph-freaking-d in chemo and radiation.

First of all, I should probably state that I’m only 23, a fact that I hope will shock anyone who feels that they are too young for breast cancer. Before my diagnosis, I was your average grad student working four or five jobs to avoid going further into student loan debt and working out the plans for the wedding of my dreams.

The discovery of my cancer has a tragically humorous story behind it. July of 2011, I decided I was fed up with my breasts. They hadn’t grown since middle school so I resolved I would subject them to a breast augmentation surgery. With a coupon for a free consultation in hand, I dragged my fiancé to the plastic surgeon’s office. I remember seeing a placard addressing the office’s policy on insurance covering the surgery if it was for reconstruction. So, as I’m sitting there waiting to meet with the doctor about a boob job, I remark to my fiancé, “Man, wouldn’t it would be great if I got breast cancer because then I wouldn’t have to raise the money for this boob job?” BOOM. There. There’s the awful punchline. I was a baby then and had no idea that the idea I said in jest was really a terribly callous joke that would come back full swing five months later.

Sitting on the exam table, the doctor found a pin prick of a lump on my right breast. He raised his eyebrows and asked if I knew about this. A part of me was embarrassed that my body could have something that could prevent surgery, especially since my regular doctor had not found anything during my annual visit two months prior. So I lied. “Of course, I know what that lump is,” I said. He told me to get it checked before the surgery plans could progress. I said that I would but already my mind was thinking that I would have to get back to work. Besides, I was 22. The world was at my feet and it was probably some dinky little cyst that would fade back into my body eventually.

So I sat on my knowledge of the lump for five months.

I filled my schedule with work and classes to avoid having to think about what the lump could be. In December of 2011, I had an unrelated surgery on my tailbone and a few days later, I started finding blood in my bra. Then, my skin felt hot and I noticed that the lump felt bigger. Oh no. Now, I’m going to have to call my doctor and admit the truth and growing evidence in my boob case.

Five months. It didn’t seem like a big deal.

In the end I couldn’t face telling my doctor’s office that I had avoided getting my lump checked out and now my boob was being weird, so I turned into a five year old and asked my mother to call. As she was describing my symptoms, it began to sink in how idiotic it was to think if I avoided something that it would go away. I call it the Ostrich Solution to life’s problems.

Five months. Is. A big. Deal.

The urgency in planning an ultrasound and then an ultrasound guided biopsy on the same day told a story that sent chills up my spine. When the technician slid her magic wand over my right breast, I thought someone had dropped a river pebble in my screen. There was a big black blob smack dab in the middle of my screen and I knew then that it was cancer. It had to be because nothing else can look as sinister. A week later, we got the official news. At 22 years old with classes to pass and weddings to plan, I had breast cancer. It was triple positive, meaning that it loved estrogen and progesterone and for dessert, it was partial to HER 2.

A week after my diagnosis, I had a bilateral mastectomy. I was my breast surgeon’s youngest patient. The night before my surgery, I wanted to see mastectomy scars. If I was going to have to wear the scars for the rest of my life, I wanted to know what I would see in the mirror. What I found was The SCAR Project. With each picture, I found stoic, resolved women who dared me to think them weak or pitiful because of their scars. These women were above their diagnosis and I took heart seeing their strength, even as my soul cried for all the beauty affected by breast cancer. It helped me through the night,  the surgery, and the breast surgeon’s finding: because of lymph node involvement, I was upgraded to Stage 2B.

A few months later, I fell into a deep recess of my former life and couldn’t bear looking at myself without the mirror being entirely fogged up. I emailed David Jay, never daring to hope that he would respond back. I had just gotten involved with the movement to bring the SCAR Project to DC and felt that my contribution would be in the background. I was satisfied knowing that I would help in this way. But David did email me back and the world opened to me again. He asked if I wanted to be photographed. I cried when I thought that anyone would want to take a picture of my scars that I despised even if they meant I was surviving. Here, my poor body was doing all it could to surmount the effects of chemotherapy and I could only see them for what wasn’t there.

When I met David in DC, I could barely breathe from the expectation that he would change his mind because as a 22 year old, I felt I should have had a youthful, unabashed spirit that wasn’t facing a life threatening disease. Had I never been diagnosed, I might have felt like a model off to a photo shoot.

David told me my scars were beautiful. At first, I rejected this thought thinking maybe he couldn’t see how harsh they looked in the light. But as he took picture after picture, I started to realize that my scars were nothing to be ashamed of. Yes, they made me different from other women my age, but they also made me more resolute and strong like all the women who had photographed before me and given me strength the night before my surgery. It is still hard to look at myself sometimes. I would be lying if I said the opposite. But through my picture and my involvement with the DC exhibit, I have made peace with myself and my scars. Because our scars are there to remind us of the times in our lives that are important to remember and they paint a story of not just survival, but living.

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Follow Eliza’s Adventures With Cancer aka her blog HERE.

Check out the story the NV Daily did on Eliza HERE.

Soldier Interrupted

[It humbles me and is my deeply felt honor to defer this post to my friend/survivor sister/wounded soldier/and one of the newest SCAR girls, Barbie. I was at Barbie’s quite recent SCAR photo shoot. She is one of the three newest young women to be photographed by David Jay for The SCAR Project.  By that, I mean UNFORTUNATELY… there are new SCAR photos… which is why we are doing this. The youngest of the 3 was 22. She was diagnosed when she was 21. Barbie was diagnosed WHILE IN AFGHANISTAN. I’m sorry for the all caps but again… this is why we are doing what we are doing. We must end this bitch of a disease. I think SCAR Project LA producer Diana Haye said it best: “Try fighting in Afghanistan, getting diagnosed with breast cancer, having a mastectomy, and then having the guts and fortitude to help raise awareness for other women baring it all and showing their scars…Barbie did.” And here’s what Barbie said, in this special guest post.]

The dog tags and camouflage are real. I am still active duty. I have been in for over 17 years and 2 combat deployments. In February 2011, I was diagnosed with Stage IIIB Breast Cancer, four months after being deployed to Afghanistan.

At my own risk, I wanted to participate in the SCAR Project because it is important to me that people understand and know anyone can get breast cancer. In my experience, it’s not something that’s often paid particular attention to due to the overwhelming male population. At some units, I was one of a few and, at times, the only female. We tend to think we are protected and immune to things because we are given a weapon, a FLAK jacket and a Kevlar helmet.

I spent most of my time taking care of the troops that were under my charge, a duty that most service members don’t take lightly. I would lay down my life for them. That’s what happened in this case. It’s just that the topography of the battlefield got personal, encroaching way beyond the borders of Afghanistan.

I wasn’t willing to accept the lump in my left breast that became obviously larger to me over the weeks that quickly turned into months. I sacrificed my own health and life as long as I could in order to stay and deploy with my unit. We had prepared and trained tirelessly for months and worked ridiculously long hours.

Leaving my troops and my unit behind was and still is harder to deal with than my breast cancer diagnosis. The feelings that I abandoned and deserted them and wasn’t able to ensure that they were safely returned home to their families will haunt me for years to come. This may be hard for many people to understand but that is the reality within my world.

Breast Cancer has torn me away from not just a career but a way of life that I loved and dedicated and sacrificed for. I am not going to ever get over Breast Cancer or move past it. I will live with it for the rest of my life.

I don’t believe most people actually “see” Breast Cancer. They hear about it but they don’t listen. It is just a terrible thing that happens to everyone else but could never happen to them. I hope that when they look at my photograph, they open their eyes and allow themselves to absorb and take it all in and really think about why this is happening to so many young women.

Everyone needs to understand the absolute reality of this disease. We have the power to speak up and make a difference. The importance of this goes deeper than just me. My whole family has inherited the Breast Cancer Gene (BRCA2). The fact that there is a great possibility that I have passed this gene on to my son and that my nieces are also at risk makes this whole fight worth it. Even if it is 5, 10, or 20 years from now, it could save their lives. It is my responsibility to preserve their future and ensure their longevity.

Every woman David Jay has photographed has their story. That is what makes this project so important. As different as we all are, we share a common bond. It connects us, and it reaches out to others, and connects them to us as well.

David Jay has given me the gift of allowing myself to be seen by others as I am now after being chewed up and spit out by cancer.

As awkward and uncomfortable as it may be for others to view, I am not embarrassed or ashamed. My young life has been rudely interrupted — and yet, I continue to forge on and accomplish things that others only talk and dream about. Perseverance, endurance, determination….these are the things that have been taught to me and instilled in me. I live in a world where giving up or giving in is not an option. Overcoming is the only way.

Welcome To The SCAR Project Blog

The SCAR Project is a series of large-scale portraits of young women confronting breast cancer shot by fashion photographer David Jay.  In the groundbreaking exhibition, this young generation of survivors reveals what is really beneath the pink ribbons. SCAR is an acronym: “Surviving Cancer. Absolute Reality.” Primarily an awareness raising campaign, it puts a raw, unflinching face on young women and breast cancer while paying tribute to the courage and spirit of so many brave young survivors of this disease. To view a slideshow of images on The SCAR Project web site click HERE.

Dedicated to the more than 10,000 women under the age of 40 who will be diagnosed this year alone, The SCAR Project is an exercise in awareness, hope, reflection and healing. The mission is three-fold: raise public consciousness of young women with breast cancer, raise funds for breast cancer research/outreach programs, and help young survivors see their scars, faces, figures and experiences through a new, honest and ultimately empowering lens.

David Jay has been shooting fashion and beauty professionally for over 15 years. His images have appeared in a multitude of international magazines and advertising campaigns. Like so many others personally touched by the disease, Jay was inspired to act when a dear friend was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32. Like the subjects themselves, Jay’s stark, bold portraits challenge traditional perceptions of the disease and capture the raw beauty, strength and character of so many extraordinary young women. Each portrait represents a singular, stripped-down vision of the life-changing journey that unites them all.

Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in young women ages 15-40. The SCAR Project participants range from ages 18 to 35, and represent this often overlooked group of young women living with breast cancer. They journey from across America – and around the world – to be photographed for The SCAR Project. Nearly 100 so far. The youngest being 18 years old.

Although Jay began shooting The SCAR Project primarily as an awareness raising campaign, he was not prepared for something much more immediate . . . and beautiful: “For these young women, having their portrait taken seems to represent their personal victory over this terrifying disease. It helps them reclaim their femininity, their sexuality, identity and power after having been robbed of such an important part of it. Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance of what has happened to them and the strength to move forward with pride.”

The International SCAR Project Exhibition premiered in New York City in October 2010, then in Cincinnati and a second DC showing in October 2011. The SCAR Project will premiere in DC in October, kicking off breast cancer awareness 2012 from our Nation’s Capitol. This blog will follow The SCAR Project exhibition as it tours, David Jay as he continues to shoot the portraits, and will also feature interviews with The SCAR Girls.