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Born to Laugh

[When I first saw my friend Sara’s SCAR portrait it immediately rendered me at a loss for words, which is not an easy thing to do. I mean, I may be crazy shy, but I typically have at least 23,587 words on the tip of my tongue at any given moment, all raising their hands like Horshack, screaming out: “Ooh ooh choose me!” However… they all stood still like they were playing the quiet game or something when I saw Sara’s SCAR portrait. I. Love. the Beauty. And the Bold. Which bursts forth from her picture like it’s rolling on the floor laughing out loud, and maybe even peeing a little, IN THE FACE OF CANCER—and—Cerebral Palsy, to boot. That’s how badass Sara B. is. And that’s why I couldn’t wait to finally meet her in person at the recent SCAR Project DC kickoff cocktail party. And that’s why I can’t wait till you get to meet her here as well. And that’s why I’ll just sit down, maybe grab a cup of espresso with a shot of Baileys, and let her hijack the blog today and tell you her SCAR story in her own words. With Sara’s permission, this is a repost from her blog, “Ready, Pink, and Able” which you can check out and follow HERE.]

Guest post by SCAR girl Sara B.

Exhausted. Actually, I’m in the spacebeyond exhausted.

That’s what I feel. I have been worried about this shoot and its implications for 3 weeks. I want to share the experience, and at the same time, keep special moments for my heart alone. I don’t really want to talk about the experience, and have been telling my friends that they have to wait until I’m ready to talk. The only reason that I’m blogging so soon is that I’m afraid that if put off, it’ll never be done.

Photo courtesy of Colleen Roche

What can I say about this day? I had a nightmare the night before about breast cancer and mastectomy scars, and then I shook for the longest time, I didn’t think that I would see the end of this day. I kept hoping that David Jaywould call me and cancel. I’m not that strong. Didn’t feel brave –just annoyed, fearful, and worried. I also knew that I wouldn’t back out of it; I see things through to the end. When I make a commitment, I believe in keeping it. It’s just the way I was made…When I’m in, I’m all in.

When David got here I announced, “It’s ME!!” He replied, “I know!!” as he kissed me on my cheek. OK. All ice melted at that point. David did his thing as he looked around, and I just tried not to faint or vomit.

Congratulate me. No fainting or vomiting!! AND you’ll be amazed. Taking off my top was pretty easy. I am NOT kidding. When it was time to take that part of this journey, I was ready. Who knew? Well, David did! He told me repeatedly over the last weeks that it would be fine. He was right. However, it was much more than fine. I was brave and David was patient. He knew how to wait for honesty. He waited for me and fearlessly took the shots. It was a privilege to be part of those moments. That shawl slipped down so many times; I didn’t worry about it. I was completely at ease. I accepted myself.

Breast Cancer is a serious subject. It’s a beast. It stole my breast. I didn’t convey any of those things during the journey that David and I took together. I laughed. Yes, I know. I’m just different. I laughed…and laughed…and laughed some more. I thought about it, and started to panic every so often during the shoot. I thought, “I shouldn’t be laughing. Breast cancer is a monster. Sara, don’t laugh.” Then, I would try to swallow the laughing and look to the camera. It was so unnatural! You can’t be yourself while you’re trying to swallow who you really are. The truth is that while breast cancer is horrible, and I have grieved the loss of my right breast, I don’t live in that place in my heart. The truth, if I’m really honest with myself, is that Sara laughs…she enjoys the freedom of laughter. I really do embrace my faith which tells me that I have been made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26). David, in his wisdom, just said, “It’s OK to laugh, go ahead.” Those moments, when David gave me permission to be happy…honestly joyful, those were my favorite.

“I was born to laugh. I learned to laugh through my tears.”
-lyrics from “Born” by Over the Rhine.
Check out a link to the song HERE.

If you’ve read my blog before, you remember that I’ve said that I never thought I would reveal myself in an intimate way to any man outside my spouse (if I ever marry). I just know instinctively that I can only be vulnerable like that if I’m in the presence of love. That is still true. The shoot didn’t change that at all. You see, when I looked at David’s face, I saw love reflected back to me. Now, make no mistake here. There are many different shades of love. I’m not in love with David nor he with me. (Although, I can certainly understand why women would fall for him.) The love that I saw in his face was his humanity truly connecting with mine. I know I didn’t imagine it. It’s probably one of the most wonderful times of my life. It brought tears to my eyes later. I had been loved, and not in any way that I expected. I never thought that I would meet a fashion photographer, let alone that I would find love in his face. Yet, it really happened. In fact, the love in that room helped me survive the moments in between the shots, when I needed to wait for my muscles to relax. I couldn’t stay in the same position for very long, and I just begged to be allowed to move. Cerebral Palsy is betrayal of the highest order. My body’s movements and spasms are often not voluntary, and pain is a frequent albeit unwanted guest.

The only troubling part of the afternoon happened when we finished. I sighed and exclaimed,”We’re done, and I’m never doing that again!” I was wholly unprepared for David’s response. He explained that if he didn’t get what he wanted in the shots we had, then we would shoot again. Umm…David…I never said that I would agree to do this again. My heart sank through the spokes of my wheels. I was convinced that he must not have gotten what he needed. I had let him down. I had let all people with disabilities down–never mind myself and the two friends who were present. Talk about pressure. Let’s be real. We had an incredibly talented photographer and we had me. If one of us had ruined the shoot, who would you bet did it?

OK. so it’s all moot now. Just look at his photo. Look at the abandon with which I threw back my head. Breast cancer took my breast, and it very well may take my life someday. It will never own me. I am free. Thank you, David, for being my witness.

Sara with SCAR photographer David Jay at the recent SCAR Project DC kickoff cocktail party (photo courtesy of Koryn Hutchison)

“Breast cancer can kiss my…gorgeous, full laugh! So there.”
-Words to live by, by our very own Sara B. aka the silliest coconut EVER

Jolene’s SCAR Story – Part II

To be so young and yet to have made such a splash and so many ripples of love.

[I didn’t want to leave Jolene’s story at the addendum from the previous post… because, although we know the end of her cancer story and that she is resting in paradise—as her brother puts it, or causing chaos among all the angels—as one of her friends posted on her Facebook wall . . .  Jolene’s story is far from over. Her SCAR portraits, her memory, her mama, all those of us who love her, and Flat Jolene, continue kicking cancer’s ass and taking names, fighting like our girl Jolene. In other words, she made some ripples down here while she was with us. I like to think it makes her twirl with delight to watch all those ripples of love she created making the universe feel like it’s a small world after all. While we can only sit here star-gazing—and surely Jolene is on the tip of the archer’s bow as he aims for that damn crab—Jolene is. still. making waves. But you, savvy reader, I know you already knew that, because you have caught a glimpse of our lovely Jolene. Plus, I figure you caught the “Part I” in the title of the previous post, and therefore caught on that there was going to be a sequel. So without further ado, here is Part II, written by Jolene’s (and my) dear friend Mary Carpenter. Thank you, Mary. You make pretty ripples too.]
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Mary star-gazing.

The Gifts We Leave Behind
Guest post by Mary Carpenter
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If we are wise, we live a life that fills not only us, but those with whom we share it a trunk full of memories. Sometimes we are not wise, though. Sometimes we are frightened and we hide from the pain, uncertainty, fear, and loss. We crouch in the darkened corner believing that we cannot bear one more trauma in our lives. And then, light peeks through the curtains and tiptoes over to that corner and taps us on the shoulder. It beckons us to draw the curtains open and embrace the sun that warms us . . . the clouds that make us dream . . . the rain that nourishes us . . . the wind that bends us . . . and live the life that awaits us.
Jolene did just that. She flung back the curtains and opened wide the window that brought her into my life and the lives of many others. She left not just a trunk filled with memories, but a garden filled with gifts for those she left behind.

Jolene (on the right) next to her lifelong friend Star

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Jolene began planting the seeds in her garden as a child. Perhaps then she wasn’t mindful of the seeds she was planting. She was just being herself… genuine, kind, considerate, loving, and funny. All of those attributes continued nourishing her garden as she and it grew and blossomed. Then the storms began to blow through Jolene’s life and she learned to bend with them gracefully instead of break. Those storms scattered more seeds throughout Jolene’s garden as the dew dripped from her petals and she was courageous enough to share them with us.
When the blades of the gardening sheers cut her stem, she found solace in a garden of flowers who had met the same storm called Phyllodes. Together, they nourished one another and strengthened each other’s roots. They, along with many other flowers who had been caught up in the cancer storm cultivated the soil of friendship in the garden.

Jolene surrounded friends and family

In the last few years of Jolene’s life, she was awed by the gratitude of these flowers not realizing it was they whose soil was most enriched by all she taught them with her honesty and appreciation for even the minutiae of life.

Her wit and charm endeared even the weeds to her, but she would not succumb to their negative forces. She continued reaching for the sky and striving to make something beautiful out of the storm that became a hurricane; sometimes subsiding, but never completely diminishing. She opened wide her leaves and petals to share the remnants of the storms’ damages with the world as part of The Scar Project. She wanted the spotlight of the world to shine down on this garden and see that not one ribbon grew in the garden. It was a garden where only flowers grew who had been changed by the blades of the gardening sheers and sometimes even pesticides that would cause petals to shed from the stamen. In this section of the garden, every flower was merely a seedling and Jolene was one of the youngest to sprout here. In her own words, she felt it was the place where her voice would still be heard after she was gone.

Jolene’s first SCAR portrait

“The SCAR Project was something very emotional for me. It helped me
embrace my scars and realize that they are something beautiful and they
are forever a part of me. I also see it as something to leave this world after
I’m gone. Something for my family to look at and never forget the fight that
I fought for my life.” 
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In the middle of her hurricane, Jolene still dreamed and talked about the things she wanted to do and the places she wanted to go. Some were as simple as wanting to gather in a garden in Florida with some of her favorite flowers and whip off her fake petals once more while singing Red Neck Woman at a karaoke bar, but Jolene’s stem and leaves were too battered by the storm to make the trek, so a paper flower named Flat Jolene was born to travel the world to the places Jolene dreamed of going, but couldn’t.
She started her journey in Florida and now has gone to places all over the world on adventures that continue to be shared with Jolene’s family, friends, and many fans. She stood in for Jolene on a cold October weekend in 2011 for the opening of The Scar Project Exhibition in New York City.
It was the weekend Jolene died, but Flat Jolene continued living for her. She skated at Rockefeller Center, rode up the elevator in Tiffany’s, went to a Broadway show, and stood somberly at the 9/11 Memorial with the other flowers. Throughout it all, weeping dew knowing that the original blossom, Jolene, had been plucked from the garden and laid to rest.

Although Jolene’s life was short, her garden was enormous and will continue to grow. Her roots remain in the soil surrounding the flowers she has touched and nourished with her love of life. The gifts she left behind are not just the material ones like the beautiful ceramics she painted with joy and love for dear friends in the Petroglyph Ceramic garden. They are the flowers she gathered together who can support one another through more storms or dance together in celebration . . . the ability to appreciate the little things . . . “Oh the joys of Hospice living . . . today is sponge bath day! WOOHOO! count your blessings! yes, even taking a shower is a blessing so be sure to wash behind ur ears people!” . . . the understanding that just because a flower sometimes wilts doesn’t mean it is giving up . . . it is taking a moment of quiet reflection . . . the knowledge that another flower has faced a similar storm . . . the ability to choose how one dies and to gracefully, yet honestly live while dying.
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The greatest gift Jolene may have left behind, though, is a community of flowers who are a loving family for her Mama Bear Denise. From the flowers of childhood and high school that routinely check in on Denise and nourish her soil to the Phyllodes and cancer bouquet that blossom love for her, Denise is always surrounded by a devoted garden. This was reflected most profoundly at the recent Scar Project Kick-Off event for Los Angeles. It was a weeklong adventure that began and ended with a road trip taken by Joules Evans, Flat Jolene, and Mama Bear Denise. The Scar Project sisters and community embraced Denise and shared much dew to water the garden. They gave her an opportunity to be Jolene’s voice and see the impact her beautiful blossom had made when she opened her petals and leaves to the world. They allowed her to become a part of not only the garden Jolene left behind, but the blossom Jolene considered her legacy. She left behind a part of her she knew still needed her Mama Bear Denise to bloom.
If we are wise, we throw back the curtains and open the window when the light beckons us from that darkened corner like Jolene did. We weclome ourselves into the garden first and begin nourishing our lives with the knowledge that the gifts we leave behind are created in the gardens of our living and even in our dying as it is a part of living in the garden of life.

Jolene’s S.C.A.R. Story – Part I

[After Jolene’s Mom, Denise VonMillanich, and Flat Jolene’s special guest appearances at the SCAR Project LA cocktail party kick-off fundraiser last month, quite a few people asked about Jolene’s S.C.A.R. story. Her recent passing in October reminded us all that the absolute reality of cancer is that not everyone survives. It is a horrid, hateful disease that does not care if you are only 17 years old, like Jolene was, when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. It does not care if you are only twenty-freaking-five when you lay down your pink boxing gloves and go to your rest in peace after kicking cancer’s ass for 9 years, like Jolene did. Cancer does not give a rip if it’s 2 weeks before your 26th birthday and you have plane tickets to NYC to The SCAR Project exhibition, where your portrait is hanging, and your SCAR sisters are all waiting to hang with you, as was the case with Jolene’s passing. Cancer does not care. But we do. And we remember Jolene. We will always remember and love you, beautiful Jolene.]

As a fitting tribute to Jolene, hers was the last portrait taken down after the NYC exhibition. The flowers are from her friends who had travelled there to be with her, and from her SCAR sisters. Rest in peace, sweet Jolene.

This very special guest post was written by Jolene Von Millanich. It is her story, in her own words. Although we know the end of her cancer story and that she is resting in paradise, as her brother puts it, or causing chaos among all the angels, as one of her friends posted on her Facebook wall… Jolene’s story is far from over. Her SCAR portraits, her memory, her mama, all those of us who love her, and Flat Jolene, continue kicking cancer’s ass and taking names, fighting like our girl Jolene.
 
My Neverending Cancer Story

by Jolene Von Millanvich
 

So, a lot of people have asked me to share my story about my fight with cancer. I decided to write it here so anyone and everyone can read it. Just to warn you, it is long, but here it goes.

When I was 17, I felt my first lump in my right breast. I ignored it for months until I finally went in for my annual exam and the nurse practitioner felt it. She immediately freaked out and referred me to a surgeon who ordered an ultrasound. I was like . . . “What is this bitch getting me into? I’m TOO young for this to be cancer!”

I went and got the ultrasound and we found out that it was solid and not a cyst like everyone thought. After that, I went to the surgeon and he gave me the option to either have a biopsy or get it removed. I decided to get it removed. So in July of 2003, I had my first lumpectomy. A few weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything about my results so we figured that no news was good news. I started college to become a medical assistant and after my first day of school, I came home to find my surgeon sitting on my couch with my family! OMG, talk about house calls! He explained to me that my results took so long to come back because they had to send the pathology to Stanford since no one at the local hospital knew what it was. He then told me my diagnosis was a Phyllodes tumor. He said that before me, he had never even heard of it. It was borderline malignant and he didn’t get clean margins. His understanding from what he read about it was that it would be best to do a single mastectomy followed by radiation, then reconstruction.

Being a 17 year old girl, my boobs were my best friends! I couldn’t imagine walking around with only one boob. What an idiot! If only I knew back then what I know now!! The surgeon decided to send me to a specialist at the UC Davis Cancer Center who had seen Phyllodes before. The specialist advised that a mastectomy wasn’t needed and we’d take the wait and see approach.

In October of 2003, I had my second lumpectomy to get clear margins and remove the second borderline malignant Phyllodes tumor from the right breast. After that, we did follow up visits every 3 months for a while. Eventually, it went to every 6 months and I was clear for about a year and a half. In February of 2005, when I was 19, I had my third lumpectomy for another borderline Phyllodes tumor. My doctor still didn’t pursue the mastectomy because he felt that it wasn’t going to turn malignant and wanted to preserve my breasts due to my young age.

June of 2008 rolled around and my doctor retired and my insurance changed, so I had to find a different Surgical Oncologist. Of course, I slacked on that until I felt a lump in my left breast in October of 2008. I found a really great surgeon and he did a lumpectomy that December. Immediately after that lumpectomy, I started to feel a lump in my right breast. It was pretty big by the time I got into to see my surgeon and at that time we decided that I was done getting lumpectomies every few years and it was time to do the double mastectomy. My new surgeon couldn’t get me scheduled until February of 2009 for the double mastectomy. By that time, my tumor was 11CM; the size of a softball. I had grown out of my B-Cup bra and even out of a C-Cup bra. I thought my boob was going to explode! It was so painful!! The pathology report from my mastectomy showed that the tumor in my right breast was, in fact, now a malignant Phyllodes tumor. My left breast had more Phyllodes tumors and DCIS.

Jolene’s gift for her friend Trish. The picture speaks for itself.

This is where the fun began! A PET scan was ordered and revealed hot spots in my right lung, right shoulder, a lymph node in my right armpit, and a lymph node in my right groin. My oncologist ordered a bone biopsy in my right shoulder because that was the easiest one to biopsy. That came back as a rare benign lesion. Then we decided to biopsy the lymph node in my right groin. Unfortunately, they didn’t get a good enough sample. The biopsy was inconclusive. My oncologist decided that since the bone biopsy was negative for cancer, the other spots weren’t cancer, either. What a mistake. I went back to work and went on with my normal life. About 4 months later, I had a repeat PET scan. It showed the spots were getting bigger. The lymph node biopsy was repeated, and what do you know, it came back positive for Phyllodes. My oncologist diagnosed me as Stage IV and referred me to a Sarcoma specialist at UCSF because he had never seen this kind of cancer.

I started chemo in October of 2009. I did Doxorubucin (aka Adriamycin, the Red Devil) and Ifosamide and had to be admitted to the hospital at UCSF for 6 days for each treatment. I completed 3 rounds of this protocol and had another PET scan. It showed that the cancer was unresponsive. So, in Febuary of 2010, I started Taxotere combined with another chemo that I can’t remember the name of right now. LOL! After 3 rounds of that protocol, I had a PET scan and it revealed it was working!! Yay!! My oncologist and I decided to do 3 more rounds. After completing the first round of this three, I noticed the right side of my lips were really, really numb. My local oncologist ordered a CT of my brain which came back normal.

About 3 weeks later, I noticed what I thought was an abscess in my mouth where I had 2 molars removed the year before. I went to the dentist and got x-rays done and they said it wasn’t an abscess but a cyst or a tumor and it was sitting on my nerve in my jaw which was causing the numbness in my lips. It started getting bigger and bigger and was really starting to get painful. I was, FINALLY, referred to an ENT oncologist at UCSF and he did a biopsy. The biopsy revealed a sarcoma. I, of course, assumed it was another Phyllodes. I would find out at a later date that I was wrong. On June 24, 2010, I had the right side of my jaw removed and reconstructed with my Fibula and a steel rod. I was in surgery for 15 hours and the ICU for 9 days, but I only remember 3 of them. LOL! All together, I was in the hospital for 2 weeks. The tumor measured 7 cm and grew that big in only 7 weeks!!

Jolene and her friend Mary after her jaw surgery.

In August, I learned that the tumor was a whole different kind of sarcoma. So I’ve had 3 different kinds of cancer and they’re planning on testing me for Li-Fraumeni Syndrome next month. It’s a genetic disorder that increases your chances of getting different kinds of cancers and, usually, affects kids and young adults. I started a clinical trial at UCSF the beginning of this month. It’s a mixture of Avastin, Taxol, and a brand new drug that doesn’t even have a name yet. I have to go to San Francisco every week for eight weeks. Then we’ll do another PET scan. I’m praying that this works!! Third time’s a charm, right?!? I can’t wait to just be done with this and get on with my life cancer free!!

[Addendum: Jolene’s chondrosarcoma in her jaw recurred before the end of 2010. About a month later, she was advised the genetic testing for Li Fraumeni (genetic syndrome) was positive and she underwent another grueling 18 hour surgery in April 2011 almost identical to the surgery she had in June of 2010. More of Jolene’s jaw was taken and rebuilt. A couple of months after that jaw surgery, it was determined that Jolene had two chondrosarcoma tumors growing in her sinus cavity/brain. Jolene underwent surgery to debulk those tumors and relieve some of her pain. After that surgery, Jolene (with the support of her family) decided to enter hospice care and live a life of quality over quantity. Jolene spent the last three months of her life making memories with her family and friends.]

And here are a few of those friends remembering Jolene at The SCAR Project Exhibition.

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.

The Girl With the Red Hair and a Tear – a guest post

[When I produced The SCAR Project Cincinnati exhibition, so many people came up to me in tears, telling me how much the SCAR portrait of “the girl with the red hair and a tear” moved them. Getting to know Sarah and many of the SCAR girls (as many of them call themselves) this past year as I’ve begun coordinating exhibitions and consulting with those trying to bring The SCAR Project to their cities/countries, has been one of the most beautiful things in my life. It is my great honor and pleasure to introduce you to “the girl with the red hair and a tear.” Obviously her portrait wrote the book on the whole picture being worth a 1000 words. But here are a few of the words behind her SCAR portrait. Her own words: my friend, survivor sister, SCAR girl, and guest blogger, Sarah.]

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“It looked . . . ” my surgeon twisted her face and looked towards the ceiling, searching for words to describe it. “Well . . . it looked like a flower.”

I don’t know if that made the news more, or less, disturbing.

The growth, blossoming in the ducts of my right breast, could be compared to something beautiful.

I don’t know why this was first question that fell out of my mouth when my doctor told me I had cancer but – before my brain could wrap itself around that word – I needed to know what this thing looked like. What was I battling? Getting a vision of something usually provides some context. Instead, I only got an image of clubbing some innocent peonies. This really wasn’t going to be much good, in terms of gearing up for a fight.

This was the beginning of nine months where cancer consumed my life. I know that I am lucky that it didn’t take more. Though I was diagnosed DCIS (ductile carcinoma in situ) and staged at zero, the cancer was all over the place like weeds in an untended garden plot.

Not one doctor could tell me what causes breast cancer in a fit, otherwise healthy 28-year-old, or what causes it to be so aggressive in younger women – in my case filling up the ducts and heading for my chest wall. After three excisions, and an argument between my radiologist and her MRI technicians, they continued to find more cancer, through three quadrants of my right breast.

Each new discovery gave me less time to make decisions, but I knew a mastectomy made the most sense.

All of my doctors were women and each one felt like some strange mother figure that was going to take action to make everything better. My reflex to this maternal agitation was to beg for more time. I also wanted to see more than one plastic surgeon about handling my reconstruction to figure out what my options were.

The first doctor I saw entered my exam room with a small cadre of un-introduced interns. I had a list of questions, all related to different reconstruction methods. He gathered some of my fleshy stomach between his fingers, examined my exposed breasts, and simply stated that there wasn’t enough there to reconstruct even one breast to it’s current size. But maybe with the addition of an implant?

The waiting room of another doctor contained a bowl of chocolates bearing the office logo. I snuck a few into my pocket before my partner and I were ushered into an exam room that looked more like an upscale hotel room. We were met shortly by a youngish looking doctor. Slick, attractive, but warm and kind. He didn’t take my insurance. We weighed options and ate chocolates as we rode the elevator back down to the ground floor.

The reconstruction surgeon I chose came recommended by a friend. She only did medically necessary breast surgery and she also worked on hands. She had a southern drawl. She spoke to me, not at me. She included my partner in the discussion since I had seen fit to bring her there. I told her that I didn’t necessarily need to have the whole breast removed, but I was afraid not to. When I eventually decided to remove my healthy breast as well, she said that she would do the same thing. I knew I was in the right hands.

Frightened, for my health, longevity, and lack of symmetry, my left breast was removed prophylactically less than six months after the cancerous right one. To get rid of the cancer, even between the discovery of DCIS in locations that weren’t originally identified, and a scare that resulted in a PET scan and a bone scan, it only took nine months. The reconstruction took far longer to be finalized, well over a year, and this is without the addition of the best approximation of nipples that money can buy.

I did it because wanted to look like myself. I wanted to fit into my clothes. I wanted cleavage. Why not? I had it before. I’ve had breasts since I was twelve years old, and it was my body, damn it. It had taken me 28 years to get comfortable in this skin. And now? Now I was angry that the most rational decision I could make led me to want as little change as possible.

Later, after the cancer was gone, after I looked normal in clothing, I went into a six-month funk. I would never truly look normal. Changing at the gym sent me into a cold sweat. Buying bras was a nightmare. Forget about looking sexy when I had lost all feeling at the surgery site.

I know those are superficial concerns, but still they are very real. I don’t have children yet. Can I have them? And without the cancer returning despite my best efforts? And surely if I was so blessed to give birth the first person to tell me “breast was best” would be met with a fist to the jaw, I’m certain, before I even realized what was happening. And my partner, should she choose it, would be stuck with this body, these alien protrusions from my chest for the rest of her life. It was not life or death, but it was a kind of suffering that made me, and on a bad day still makes me, burst into tears on a whim.

The SCAR Project shows this less than pretty pink-ribboned side of breast cancer. It reveals the new reality young women face, having confronted breast cancer. They look at you from their portraits as is . . . reconstructed or not . . . alive, giving the big “fuck you” to cancer, but scarred. Some have even used the word “butchered” to describe me and the other women in the photos.

The SCAR Project photos give voice to the suffering that is done in silence. Every cancer patient is applauded for staying positive, but sometimes that is too big a burden to bear. There is a real-ness in these photos, as the camera captures milliseconds of a long, multi-round fight. There is room to breathe, to expand the excised chest – because for a few moments it is only you, and that camera, and the memory of where you’ve been and what lies ahead.

Breast Cancer: Absolutely Inappropriate.

[As Facebook has deemed some images of The SCAR Project to be inappropriate, and as such, has consequently removed them from the The SCAR Project FB page, one of The SCAR Project girls has written an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg on her blog. With her permission, I’m cross-posting it here, featuring Sara as my first guest blogger on The SCAR Project Blog.]

An open letter to Mark Zuckerberg

Dearest Mark & FB moderators~I am writing to you about the SCAR Project – the SCAR Project and its images have been featured in LIFE, Forbes, Psychology Today, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, America Online, Lancet, etc, and seeks to put a face on breast cancer, especially the young women who are affected by the disease.I am speaking as someone who modeled for the photographer, David Jay. I did so in December of 2007 – before the world knew about the SCAR Project. David used boards targeted to young survivors to ask women to come pose for the project. My reason for posing was simple – I never wanted another woman who was facing a mastectomy to wonder…wonder what she would look like, wonder if she would still be herself…wonder if she would survive. I had a prophylactic mastectomy in January of 2007 and I searched high and low on the internet and could find NO photographs of what I could expect. Everything I found was geared toward older women…no one looked like me…and I was terrified…

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the SCAR Project would reach so many women. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine it would become a GLOBAL influence. There have been a plethora of articles written – all over the world. This project is changing lives…it is empowering other breast cancer survivors…other people who have had their lives changed by breast cancer…it is allowing the generations who had to suffer in silence stand-up and say, that is me…that was my mother…that was my grandmother. I often have tears welling up when I read the comments of the women who are appreciative to FINALLY see someone else like them…who say the photographs gave them the strength, peace, comfort… I am overwhelmed because my hope has been realized tenfold.

How did this project gain momentum? I have to believe it is in large part because of Facebook. The first exhibition was in NYC in 2010 – at that time, I remember the Facebook page followers numbered in the four figures. Today, as I am typing, the SCAR Project’s page has over 22K followers.

I am writing to ask you to please step in – the SCAR Project has received multiple warnings about content. At this point, the photographer, David Jay, has decided to remove the photographs rather than risk the page being shut down. I truly believe, Mark, you must know someone who has been affected by breast cancer. I believe the days of anyone not knowing someone changed by breast cancer are long gone. Think of the person you know, maybe it is a relative, maybe a friend – consider how it must feel – having to cut off a body part, a body part society tells us is the most important part of being a woman. Imagine the isolation, the fear, the grief, the anger…all of these emotions and feeling as if you are all alone. The SCAR Project has changed this – the SCAR Project has allowed these women to see their strength, to find their beauty in this strength. In order for the SCAR Project to continue helping these women, the photographs need to be available.

Facebook has the opportunity to help change the world in a positive way – by allowing the SCAR Project to have an open forum to continue reaching men and women around the world. Please, take a moment to look the SCAR Project’s Facebook page – read the comments. There is no denying the power and impact it is having on the many who view the photographs. Take a look at the SCAR Project’s website to see the actual photographs – there is nothing sexual. It is simply showing the world that breast cancer is, and always has been, so much more than a pink ribbon.

Thank you for your time and consideration~
Sara

The SCAR Project FB Page
The SCAR Project Website