I guess my mother was lucky. Cancer never endangered her life. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. For her, recovery was never a question. A few months scattered with some slightly unpleasant procedures (biopsies, surgeries, tubes, needles), a new prescription or two and a couple of gut-wrenching decisions (mastectomy or lumpectomy? reconstruction? when?), and they told us she’d be fine. It was never an easy journey, to be certain, but Mama never had to fight for survival. We all had the blessing of knowing she’d be with us tomorrow.
No, cancer never endangered her life in the traditional sense, but it robbed her of the years when many of us take life for granted in our innocence. Even in the best of circumstances, cancer turns your world upside down. It changes every relationship in your life. You learn to trust strangers in scrubs. You learn to question conventional wisdom. You find out how to tune out the voices of those who think they know best, and to listen to yourself when you do know best. You wrestle with the idea that your body has betrayed you, and struggle to learn to trust it again. You learn to live with the idea that in one unexpected moment, the world as you know it can change completely.
This April, Mom will celebrate three years of cancer-free living. She’s always been a strong lady, but this season of her life has revealed courage and a depth of character I’d never witnessed in a woman before. These days, it’s no big deal for her to undertake adventures of which most people will only dream. She’s climbed Kilimanjaro. She’s made public appearances, sharing her cancer story with various women’s groups. And last Sunday, she became the first model for the Of Scars project.
Mom, known as Bonnie to the rest of the world, has spoken publically and somewhat extensively on the importance of her support network throughout an experience that made her feel very isolated. So it was touching that she brought her support network with her to the photo shoot. Dad hung out and chatted with her throughout the afternoon, offering comic relief and a ride home for my mother, who brought a bottle of wine to take the edge off of posing topless in a public forum. Wise woman. I nabbed a glass to take the edge off of photographing my mother topless in my living room.
Pamela Cariveau has graciously offered to do hair and makeup for our photo shoots, and did a magnificent job of making Mom look like a stone-cold fox. Later, Mom commented that Pam’s nurturing spirit made her feel more secure, which is relatively important when you’re about to pose topless.
Meanwhile, elli and I were converting my living room into a photo studio. There’s something magical about building a set in a space that you love. A white backdrop and a few lights, and you know magic is about to happen in your place. It’s kind of indescribable. Compounded with the fact that I was shooting pictures of my mother, with my very dear friend elli, it was a pretty emotional afternoon.
We took a few test shots, and then went to work doing our best marker graffiti on my mother. See, the morning of her mastectomy, she asked me to write a phrase across her chest: Breasts Are Not For Saving. Women Are.
For Mom, those were the words that served as her mantra during her recovery. It was a reminder that her breasts were not her essence. Surgery might remove tissue, but it could never take her femininity, her beauty or her spirit. “That’s what I think I learned from cancer,” Mom would say later. “My flesh was separate from my spirit. I had to remove the flesh to save the spirit, and that’s a sacrifice worth making.”
And so our project began. It is our goal to ask ourselves and our culture to re-evaluate our opinion of scars, and I think this photo shoot was a tremendous start. My mother was asked to choose between spirit and flesh, and she chose spirit. The body left behind by that decision is among the most powerful artistic statements I’ve ever seen.
Next time, we shoot photos of a stranger. I’m a little nervous about keeping our next model as candid and comfortable as my mom, but I’m also very excited to discover the wisdom of another beautiful body and the soul that drives it.
If you know any breast cancer survivors who’d like to challenge the way society sees their scars, have them contact us via email at OfScarsProject (at) gmail (dot) com.