Nikki’s Story of Cancer & Photography

Since day 1 of writing this blog, as with the blog for Bella Faccia Photography, I have wanted to share honesty, inspiration, insight, optimism, photography, and the message that we are all connected.  I believe that our personal experiences shape us in immeasurable ways; I also believe that we can be changed by the experiences of others…this is the primary reason I have chosen to start hosting guest blog posts.

The first ‘guest words’ for Bella Forza are Nikki’s.  A month or so back I was honoured to be featured on oopoomoo.com’s “Inspirations” blog series (you can find it here: http://www.oopoomoo.com/tag/bella-forza) and Nikki commented on the post.  I was touched by what she wrote and contacted her to see if she might be willing to share her story of ‘cancer and photography’ with us, and I’m so grateful that she said yes!

It takes courage to speak your truth, it takes courage x 10 to speak your truth on the web.  What you’ll read of Nikki’s story is moving – both honest and funny. 

Nikki, I thank you.  My perspective is of a person whose loved ones have had Cancer diagnoses; it is with such gratitude to you that today I can share ‘first-person’ words that I know will inspire others.  xo

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

Here are Nikki’s words…

While on a trip to the states in September 2009, my life path was altered forever. I had noticed my breast changing shape in the months previous but attributed that to my weight loss program (60 lbs). I even kidded with my husband, ‘”it’s my cancer breast”. Oh, foolish me. I had tried to look for a lump but never found anything, however the day before we returned home, I found the lump I had been searching months for. That was Thursday, on Saturday I was at the walk-in clinic. I was told I’d need my first mammogram and an ultrasound. After those tests they told me it was likely carcinogenic. Not words you want to hear, ever. After that, things started happening quickly with a biopsy and then more waiting for the results. I knew what they would be but I needed to hear it from the doctor. Finally, on October 2 (after pestering the clinic all week), I went in at noon with hubby to meet with the doctor. He told me it was breast cancer and that I had a long road ahead of me with a 2.2 cm tumor. I was able to keep it together until we got outside. The next couple days were spent telling our friends and family and getting ready for the next steps. Devastating news that no amount of preparing can prepare you for.

My way of coping was to lean on my love of photography. It gave me a purpose when I went to each test and exam. I brought my camera to take photos of the equipment and myself. I’m sure the techs thought I was crazy but they allowed me to take my photos. The next month was busy as I went for scans and other tests to find out if the cancer had spread to other organs. A very scary and lonely time. Both my parents had dementia so I was unable to share the news with them. Luckily hubby was there for me and some close friends and relatives. We had a pre-planned trip to Las Vegas for Oct 29-Nov 1 to celebrate a friend’s 21st birthday. It was a good time, but hard for me to truly enjoy as I knew on Nov 4 I would be having a mastectomy (I really hate that word!).

Knowing that my body would be changing in ways I could never imagine, I booked a professional portrait session (first one since our wedding years earlier!) in mid-October. I wanted a record of my waist-length hair, something I had grown for quite a long time. I’ve always wanted long hair as a little girl. Perhaps part of me also wanted photos for hubby of us together, if things didn’t turn out well. I also wanted photos of my breast, soon to be gone, so had hubby do the honors of taking those photos. I’ve always loved photography and I was determined to document every damn step of this journey.

After surgery, I found out the tumor was twice as large (5 cm), had spread to many lymph nodes and was quite advanced (Stage 3b). Every time I seen the doctor, the news seemed to be worse. I had about 8 weeks to recover before chemo began on December 29. Merry Christmas! I was scheduled for 6 treatments every 3 weeks. The day chemo began, I was there with my camera, to document every moment of this treatment. Especially the awful ‘red’ medicine which would take away my hair.

Excited and nervous at my first chemo treatment, ready to kill all the bad cells!

Excited and nervous at my first chemo treatment, ready to kill all the bad cells!

Shortly before my second chemo treatment, I decided to cut my hair to shoulder-length as it was falling out and in a knotted mess. I arranged a night to do it and had some close friends over. I was sure that I would be a hysterical mess. I had one of my friends make a braid so that I could save that. Then she was ready to do the chop, but I was feeling confident and suddenly wanted to cut it myself. Cancer was not going to make me weak and helpless! So she handed me the scissors and chop chop went my hair, about 23 inches of it. It was very freeing. Hubby videotaped the whole episode and we took several photos after of my short ‘do’. Surprising myself, I didn’t cry or feel emotional. It’s amazing how your body and brain allow you to cope with all these sudden life changes.

Chemo was its own challenge, but again I was not going to let cancer get the better of me. I was usually down for close to a week and then I would have a couple decent weeks before the next treatment. I would force myself to go on walks in the park area every day. Even though it was January/February and -20 most of the time, I still went and would take of photo of myself each day as I arrived at the half-way point. A way to say to myself, you’ve made it this far. A lot of people are confident enough to go out bald-headed during treatment but not me. There was no way I was going to allow people to give me the ‘pity’ look, no way! I had a lovely wig that was shoulder length that I wore with hats and scarves. Some people even thought it was my real hair. It was hard enough being the youngest person in the chemo room, there was no way I wanted people feeling sorry for me.

Once chemo finished, I was ready for my hair to return. On my last day of chemo, I finally shaved my head myself and removed the last few strands of hair that had hung in there. I figured if cancer wanted to take my hair, it had to come and get it as I wasn’t handing it over. I started photographing my eyelashes, eyebrows and hair. I would set up my camera and then get hubby to take the photos every week. I even had a ruler I would use on my head to show how long my hair was getting. I was obsessed that it grow the ½” per month that it was supposed to!

Radiation was the next hurdle that began in May in Calgary, which meant driving about 3 hours every day for a month. I could’ve stayed over but I wanted to be home every night in my own bed. Radiation was not going to alter my life! I drove on my own mostly and had friends and my sister come with me sometimes. For my first treatment, I insisted on the techs taking a photo of me on the machine. I’m sure they thought me mad! But they humored me. On the last day of radiation, June 9, 2010, I brought a cake for the techs and we took more photos to celebrate the wonderful day.

I’d like to say things have gone smoothly since, but no such luck. I developed lymphedema in my arm during chemo (a life-long condition). Last year I had my first reconstructive surgery and developed numerous blood clots on both lungs which made recovery a little harder. This past January was surgery #2 and it went great. I have one more to go before my reconstructive journey is over … so close!

Photography was an integral part of my entire journey. Not only was I able to document every test, appointment but also the loss of hair/breast and then the return of those which brought me full circle. It gave me a purpose, almost a distraction that allowed me to focus on the procedures and not stress/whine and complain about the symptoms. When you go through something like this, it’s helpful to have certain goals in mind. Mine was going to see Bon Jovi a month after radiation. Sounds silly but it helped me through chemo as I would think, I cannot allow chemo to delay anything as I have a tight timeline!

@Bon Jovi!

A month after finishing treatment I was able to accomplish my goal of attending the Bon Jovi concert in Calgary.

This is definitely a life changing journey, but I never wondered why me, I just focused on getting down to business and getting through it. Considering I was the person who would rarely see a doctor once a year and only for something serious, it’s been a big adjustment. I still don’t like going to the doctor but at least I’m around to go!

Thank you Lori, for allowing me the opportunity to share my story with your readers.

 

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Kudos for “Under the Red Dress”

If you have a Facebook account you have likely already seen news of the project “Under the Red Dress” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/14/beth-whaanga-breast-cancer-scars-facebook_n_4775901.html) by Beth Whaanga, the young mother of four and Cancer survivor, and Nadia Masot, the photographer.

Under the Red Dress - Beth Whaanga, by Nadia Masot

“Under the Red Dress”   Beth Whaanga, by Nadia Masot

The premise of “Under the Red Dress” is two fold…first it aims to show the ravages of a Cancer diagnosis and, secondly, it encourages us, society, to be mindful that we don’t always, or even often, know what challenges another person is facing (be it Cancer, depression, divorce, abuse, etc.).

Whaanga was diagnosed on her 32 birthday with Breast Cancer.  In subsequent testing it was also discovered that she carries the BRCA2 gene, which placed her at very high risk for both Breast and Ovarian Cancers.  She then had to make the devastating decision to have preventative surgeries.

I am so impressed by Whaanga’s courage to be photographed in such an intimate and candid way.  This is the type of work that changes perceptions, it is the tearing down of facades and hushed talk.  Cancer is very real, it doesn’t discriminate striking anyone at any time, and it involves invasive and destructive (but ultimately life saving) treatments.   The honest depiction of what Cancer ‘looks like’ is seen in this series – not unlike the SCAR Project – and I believe that showing this side of the subject can only empower us, as a global society, through gained empathy and acceptance.

When interviewed, Whaanga said:

“Your scars are a physical or emotional representation of a trial you’ve been through,” Whaanga told The Huffington Post in an email. “They show that you came through the trial and survived.”

I believe in the power of a photograph.  I believe it can change how we see people/circumstances/issues and, more importantly, it can change how we feel about them.

It is reported that upon Whaanga posting her images to her Facebook page she was ‘unfriended’ by 100 people.  Criticism included that the pictures were offensive and that Facebook was the wrong venue.  I’m personally blown away that anyone could see anything other than courage, strength, and beauty in these photographs and, if they are shocking – these images of truth – well, that just means we need to see more of them…war doesn’t go away because the photojournalist is told to put her camera down.  We must, as a group, stand up and against Cancer.  We must look it straight in the eye with a fierce determination that we will do whatever it takes to save lives.

I would like to add that it is also reported that Whaanga’s images were reported to Facebook as offensive but that Facebook has written Whaanga to say they will not be removed.  I credit David Jay, of The SCAR Project, with Facebook’s much improved stance on this subject.

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

The never ending circle of gratitude…

Anyone that knows me well knows that I love circles…to the point of having them inked on my body!  This afternoon I received an email that, to me, is further proof   that all is cyclical, including gratitude (I didn’t really need further proof but I will lovingly accept it with a huge smile!).

Last March I embarked on this hugely personal endeavour to create Bella Forza…I knew that it would require at least three women (more when you count those who referred my first clients) to help me show what I wanted to provide through Bella Forza.

My friend and fellow photographer, Sam Chrysanthou, was generous enough to see what I wanted to do and to trust why I wanted to do it; she spoke to her friend, Sharon, to see if she might be interested…she was and she became one of three very important people in Bella Forza’s journey.

Today Sharon wrote me with some thoughts on what her session, last March, has meant for her:

“Cancer knocked my feet out from under me.  I doubted my body.  I doubted my ability to cope.  I doubted my purpose.  I felt so vulnerable, so fragile.

Cancer tested everything I believed to be true, everything upon which I had built my life.  I struggled with the meaning of my experience, one that rearranged my career and my family life.  What remained after cancer’s destructive path through my life?

Gradually, I realized that beauty, truth and love remained, but there were many dark days on the journey to discovering this. Rebuilding my life in a way that incorporates what cancer taught me is my ongoing challenge.

Enter Bella Forza and its compassionate people.  Lori and Sarah heard my story, honouring me and my cancer journey.  They recognized my strength and gave “picture” to it.

I came away from my Bella Forza experience knowing that I had reached a milestone in my acceptance of my cancer-changed life.  Lori and Sarah heard and “imaged” me into being.

My beautiful Bella Forza portrait is in a place where it catches my attention every day.  I pause for a moment and remember–

I am beautiful.

I am strong.

Lots of people love me.

And I am reminded that today, I will Be.Here.Now.

© 2013 Bella Forza

Strength.Beauty.Grace. © 2013 Bella Forza

I felt infinite gratitude when Sharon walked through my studio doors, and I sat in tears this afternoon, in gratitude, that the circle was complete and it is beautiful.

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

xo Lori

And we call her, ‘Grace’…

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The remarkable Ms. G.!

Note: Due to my client’s work it was my initial preference to only use her first initial, “G.”; however, as I typed, “G.” lacked the vibrance that IS this woman; therefore, I will call her ‘Grace’ (and, trust me, it fits)!  🙂

After a lifetime of having ‘lumps and bumps’, Grace had become a pro at doing self exams, going for semi-regular mammograms, etc., all of which afforded her the knowledge, on the morning of August 1, 2012, to know that this time something was different.  Grace told me, “I just knew.”  She called her doctor that morning, with some gentle encouragement from a coworker to not wait, and made an appointment for the same day.  The doctor was as concerned as Grace and ordered a mammogram and ultra sound, which could both be done two days later.

At Grace’s August 3rd ultra sound she was told that she would need a biopsy; which was scheduled for one week later.  That interim week was spent, as previously arranged, visiting her elderly parents with her beloved dog, Chloe.  Not knowing what the final diagnosis would be, Grace told them nothing, to spare any unnecessary worry, and returned home for the test.

The day after Grace’s biopsy Chloe had a heart attack.  Grace was told that Chloe was in congestive heart failure and would need to be euthanized.  Grace and Chloe had the weekend to spend together; cuddling, visiting loved ones, and going for walks.  On August 13th Grace had to say goodbye to Chloe and then leave the next day for a conference in the U.S., which is where she vowed to present at the April 2013 conference in Europe.  She then arrived home to news that she had Invasive Ductal Breast Cancer that may have spread to her lymph nodes.

Due to the fast growing type of tumour, it was decided that they needed to slow/stop its growth through chemotherapy prior to proceeding with surgery.  With an incredible support network, which she refers to as her ‘A-Team’, Grace met chemo head on – and it was tough.  The cocktail she was given was known to be hard-hitting, but no one could have prepared for just how hard-hitting it was.  Through it all she has had friends around her constantly; she never attended a chemo session alone, and, during the darkest hours, her friends would rally with her at her home, staying overnight, providing care and laughs, and, as she puts it, “living around her”.  Grace credits this exemplary demonstration of friendship, this “life around her”, as a primary reason she is here with us; still on the journey, but getting stronger by the day!

Grace, in B&W

Grace, in B&W

At the conference that she was at last August, Grace had vowed, both to herself and others, that she and her colleague would present important and emerging information at an international conference to be held in Europe this April.  Grace credits part of her resolve to beat Cancer to her promise made during that tumultuous time in her life last summer: when her hair fell out she would think, “I’m going to that conference”; when she had a near fatal experience on chemo she thought, “I’m going to that conference”; on those days when it was nearly impossible to get out of bed she would think, “I’m going to that conference.”  Indeed, it has been Grace’s resolve, determination, and passion that has allowed her to accomplish AMAZING things in her life (things I so wish I could share publicly here…she’s done a lot for our society!), and which served her well during this battle for her life. Grace was in Austria two weeks ago, presenting to her colleagues, just as she knew she would!

Grace in Colour

Grace, in colour

One of the very difficult things about treatment for Grace was the loss of her long, blonde hair.  She was determined at the outset that ‘her hair’ wouldn’t fall out.  But it did.  The chemo also stole her finger and toe nails.  These things are poignant for us; while you are expending every ounce of strength into your fight, you must also, simultaneously, accept dramatic and often heart wrenching differences in your appearance.  When Grace knew that her hair was in fact falling out, she, with her friend, found Compassionate Beauty, a specialized spa and resource for women undergoing cancer treatment.  Compassionate Beauty provides support, products, post mastectomy products, medical hair loss solutions, and more, and was able to help Grace with the fitting and purchase of wigs (among other services) that allowed her the opportunity to maybe not feel quite so vulnerable during a very difficult year.  Nine months later, though, Grace is on the admirable journey of embracing her ‘new me’.  She’s rockin’ a wicked, platinum pixie cut and is looking outrageously awesome in some new black frames!  Grace told me that this session came at a perfect time for her…this is a time of change, growth, acceptance, fearlessness (I dare say something I can’t imagine she’s ever not rocked!), and a new-found confidence in a new look and outlook!

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Grace, the movie star!

Grace finished her nearly 5 months of chemo in January; had a lumpectomy (now being referred to as breast conservation surgery) in February; and is currently undergoing radiation.  Her sense of humour and unwillingness to back down from the fight are the stuff of legend.

G., it was my absolute pleasure to meet you, to hear and then convey your story, and to photograph you.  I sincerely hope that you see the beauty, intelligence, life, and vibrance in these images as I see in you!

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

xoxo

Lori

Jackie

As I mentioned in a previous post; I wanted to have the opportunity to provide the ‘Strength Package’ to a few women prior to publicly launching Bella Forza and I asked family and friends if they knew of any women who might like the opportunity.  You’ve already met Sharon, and now I’d like to introduce you to Jackie…

One of the people I emailed early on was Cori, owner and instructor at Soul Health & Fitness in Calgary (www.soulhealth.ca), whom I know through my sister and who is, simply put, a wonderful person. Cori was quick to reply to me saying that she thought her Aunt Jackie would be perfect and that she would enquire with her…a few weeks later we were all together in the studio!

With Jackie’s permission I am sharing some of her story, which she shared with us as we sat around the table and she had her first ever makeup application, (which preceded her first ever professional portrait session!)…

Jackie has been married for 43 years and has shared the joys and challenges of parenting five children with her husband.  One of their children was born with serious health challenges and they were told that she wouldn’t live more than a few hours after birth.  Knowing that little ones need touch, Jackie cuddled her infant daughter for hours, which turned into days, then weeks….and her daughter is still with us these many years later!  It was during this very difficult time in her life that Jackie decided that she wouldn’t live her life in fear, and she wouldn’t let anyone dictate when a date of death would be “…because they don’t know.  They can’t know.  No one can tell me, with certainty, when someone is going to die and so we might as well get on with living!”  Jackie found freedom and peace once she made the conscious choice to simply live for the day.  Despite the doctors’ insistence that their daughter would not survive, Jackie saw a little girl who was surviving and proceeded to shift her thoughts and actions away from the terrible prognosis (not buying a crib, not preparing a room, etc.) and instead toward having her daughter come home with them from the hospital and all of the fun preparations that go into welcoming a baby into your family.  Jackie told me that she decided then that, “you can live to live, or you can live to die, and I choose to live to live.”   A decision that would ulimately inform her daily choices for the rest of her life and which has undoubtedly helped her in ways she couldn’t have foreseen those many years ago.

Jackie

Jackie

Flash forward to 1996 when Jackie was diagnosed with Breast Cancer.  After an early treatment plan by doctors Jackie was given the opportunity to pursue further treatment (things like drug therapies, I understand, were suggested) but Jackie chose to not pursue any further treatments.  Sadly, the next year the Cancer was back and had spread.  Jackie then underwent a double mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy.  In 2012 Jackie was diagnosed with a recurrence and was told that the Cancer had spread to her lungs, kidneys, liver, and pancreas and she is currently undergoing treatment that combines both Western and Eastern medicine.  Through it all, Jackie maintains an upbeat attitude combined with humour and resilience.  She smiled and laughed as she shared with us her life truths and I could feel her words changing me as we sat around that table.

An impromptu shot of Jackie & Cori

An impromptu shot of Jackie & Cori

Jackie is living an existence that I am so humbled by.  She is the epitome of grace under pressure and, when it was time for her to leave, we hugged and I truthfully told her that I have never experienced a more rewarding session…it was moving, inspiring, meaningful, and hopeful.  I love this lady, I love her spirit and her determination, I love her example that you get to CHOOSE how you live your life, and I love that she was willing to participate in something that, by all accounts, was a fair ways outside of her comfort zone!  Thank you, Jackie, you have my abiding respect and gratitude.

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

Lori

Makeup by: Sarah Byrne