Photographer's Story

Ten years ago, I picked up the New York Times magazine to find a partially disrobed, disarmingly beautiful woman on the cover. A mastectomy scar raked across her otherwise perfect torso. Her face radiated self-confidence. As I stared at the image, I felt as if someone had inched open a door that I never knew existed. That photograph conveyed what a sensitive spouse or more self-assured mother than my own should have made clear after my own mastectomy several years before: While cancer may claim a breast or shorten the years of a women's life, it dow not have the authority to compromise her beauty or to dilute the accomplishments that precede or follow treatment.

Under the spell of that photo I envisioned compiling an entire book filled with portraits of breast cancer survivors. I would find seasoned photographers to capture the femininity and sexuality of these women, to portray their grit and determination. Together we would assemble an inspiring, powerful portfolio that would not only accrue to women who had been diagnosed with cancer, but also would allow the subjects themselves to fully appreciate their own beauty and strength. Best of all, the project would provide a life-affirming role model for my daughter, who was burdened by our family's history of the disease. Three generations - her great-grandmother, her grandmother, and myself - have suffered with breast cancer. And low self-esteem also seemed to run in the family, at least where my mother and I were concerned. I was already planning to quietly shepherd the book into being, then relinquish control others. I could not imagine traveling around the country by myself to talk with or to photograph strangers. The lost and lonely adolescent I had been - whose peers made fun of the back brace she wore to correct scoliosis - was still very much in control of my self-image. A failed marriage had left me stranded in a sea of self-doubt.

For two frustrating years I struggled in vain to find partners who would help me see the project to completion. To make matters worse, I broke my hip in a fall and spent several months recovering. It was only then, with the help of friends, that I began to hobble toward the realization that only I could make my dream come true. "Take the pictures yourself," urged my sister-in-law Becky, an arts writer who knew that I had studied photography as a hobby. I was terrified and intrigued at the prospect. Richard, my nutritionist, propped me up physically and emotionally. Lynn, a photographer friend who came to visit me at home while I was recovering from my fall, offered to let me use her studio and to help me set up my shoots for the first few sessions. Dana Ravel, still bald after a recent bout of stem cell therapy, agreed to be my first subject, despite being skeptical about the notion of wrapping herself in a towel for the camera. The feisty former art dealer refused to don the boxing gloves I wanted her to wear until I had only two rolls of film left. "Give me those things," she finally said, and then she assumed the position that I had envisioned so clearly - dukes up! With that first photograph, my journey began.

There were, of course, stumbling blocks along the way. Many of the women I approached were not comfortable in front of the camera and were unwilling to pose for me. Occasionally husbands advised their spouses against stepping into the spotlight. Others agreed to pose and then changed their minds at the last minute after I'd traveled halfway across the country to see them. But the ones with whom I've laughed and cried, the ones whose portraits appear in this book, have left me feeling incredibly proud to be a women. I am in awe of every single one of them. Photographic sessions I'd arranged with a stranger frequently ended hours after they'd begun with a hug from a newly made friend.

My own experience with breast cancer pales in comparison to the ordeals endured by most of the women depicted here. I was one of the "lucky" ones for whom surgery - a simple mastectomy and subsequent reconstruction - was sufficient, without chemotherapy or radiation. And yet every annual checkup summons old fears. Sadly, a few of the women whose photographs appear on these pages, including that wonderful woman wearing the boxing gloves, have died. I take comfort in knowing that Dana lived each day with great vigor and joy, but I miss her still. Others will remain in treatment for years. "Cancer is always going to be in my life whether or not there's a reoccurrence. I have to learn how to walk with it," writes Oni Faida Lampley, whose photograph appears on page 30. Her words ring true. But does that walk with illness suggest that those who have cancer must surrender their autonomy, sexuality, creativity, or delight in life's pleasures? I think not. Gaze into the eyes of the women on these pages. Take note of the sexy curves, elegant demeanors, dreamy expressions, and playful poses. They are aglow with life, despite or perhaps even because of their experience with breast cancer.

There are many choices to be made when a woman learns she has breast cancer. Most have to do with finding the best medical caregivers, agreeing on the most appropriate mode of treatment, and finding ways to continue to work and to care for family members. But there are other challenges as well, including learning to retain a sense of humor the way Liz Carpenter was able to do; defining oneself by life rather than illness like Gloria Stuart proposes; and relying on the support of partners and friends, as so many of the women portrayed in this book have done, without losing a sense of self. It is my hope that "meeting" these women will help other breast cancer patients find an optimistic stance as they heal both body and soul. Just as I was inspired by that photograph years ago, I pray that others will be empowered to find the courage to open doors and to create a new and perhaps even better life after breast cancer, regardless of the odds or the outcome. It is my profound hope that these photos reveal to all the beauty, power, and life-affirming spirit that I saw through the camera's lens. I offer special thanks to the women whose pictures grace these pages for sharing my journey and for setting a fine example for me and for all of our daughters and sons, partners and friends.