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.

A Toast to 2013 with Wishes for 2014

I was honoured to provide portrait services to this young couple who, with grace and humour, are facing the incredibly difficult journey of his Cancer diagnosis.  They were my last session of 2013, just last week in fact, and I cannot imagine a more fitting end to my business year than a Bella Forza shoot!

Elizabeth & Cam Collage with Logo

This opportunity came to me through a new friend and photographer, Sheila, whom I met while attending another friend’s workshop this Fall.  Thank you, Sheila, for your trust in me and also for so graciously and wholeheartedly assisting on the shoot!  (hugs to you, Beautiful!)

2013 proved to be an incredibly difficult year for me personally; however, professionally it was terrific!  I was asked by the good folks at oopoomoo.com to participate in a panel discussion during their Persistent Vision seminar, which I happily (with knees shaking a little) did!  It was a wonderful and humbling experience (there I was sitting between David duChemin, Dave Brosha, and John Marriott! :O) that has led to new friendships and opportunities, the likes of which are still unfolding!  Shortly thereafter I unveiled Bella Forza Portraits…a dream that had been quietly germinating over the course of years and which is now a reality!  I feel ever grateful and hopeful for this work that so profoundly stirs my soul.

My calendar already has entries for 2014 that I am both excited about and scared of (which is a recipe for wholehearted living to be sure!)!  I am also incredibly excited about a future announcement for something that came to me as a jaw dropping epiphany (as in, “why haven’t I thought of this sooner?!)…stay tuned for that!

As we all face our own challenges, may we also celebrate everything that goes right for us and for others on a daily basis.  We must acknowledge the difficult times and they must be spoken aloud and without shame; however, so must we exclaim with joy all the little wonders of our lives: a great parking spot, a proud child, a heartfelt embrace, a good book, a friend’s time and attention, an inspired blog post, a great shot we make ‘in camera’ ;), lucky pennies, a smile from a stranger, and the dawn of each new day that affords us the opportunity to smile, to hope, to dream, and to love.

I wish us all a year ahead that gifts us growth, joy, love, and health!

NYE Card 2013

Happy New Year, life is beautiful!

Strength.Beauty.Grace. 

xo Lori

Lasagna and The Ripple Effect

How many times have we, in life, wanted so badly to help someone but been at a loss for how?  Inevitably, when a person faces a serious illness or debilitating injury, the first offerings, and longest lasting efforts, centre around food; which is, in my experience, wholly appreciated by the affected person AND their families (although we had one care worker who insisted on making trifle for us, daily…I can’t imagine every eating trifle for dessert again! 😉 ).  Given that this is the first thing that tends to come to mind when you are in the position of wanting to help a loved one, people’s fridges and freezers become full, quickly.  I remember feeling so awkward when my mom was sick and we had so many people wanting to help, but we really didn’t need any more lasagna!  It’s so difficult, as the grateful recipient, to say ‘no’ to these generous acts of kindness, especially when you don’t have any other suggestions of how they can help – people WANT to do something.

Well, what if there was a way to help that didn’t involve Tupperware?!

I’ve been through tough times, with both my mom’s illness and other life challenges…I know that prepared food, walking the dog, helping get kids to and fro school and activities, quiet games of Scrabble, and many more acts of kindness, are all incredibly important and provide unparalleled solace & relief.  I also believe that fun, uplifting experiences are needed too.  I recall spending the time painting Mom’s nails and doing her makeup, with chatting and laughter throughout, before friends would come to visit.  It wasn’t about pretending she wasn’t sick, it WAS about her not feeling that her role and as we saw her was as ‘patient’ only; it WAS about her having on her trademark red lipstick and feeling ‘ready’ for a visit.

I believe, deep in my soul, that a few hours away from ‘real life’, being pampered by a wonderful hair&makeup artist, having your portrait created, and then being gifted with a framed print from our session is healing.  I believe we all want to feel beautiful, we want to have fun, we need to feel alive…and I propose that this is one of the nicest things you could gift to a loved one.  I fully recognize that women facing health challenges may not instinctively seek out having their portrait taken; let’s face it, if you are fighting for your life a photo shoot may not seem an immediate necessity!  However, for any of you who are looking for a warm, loving, lasting experience to provide…I can’t think of anything nicer; and  please know that I’m speaking first as a daughter, sister, and friend and only secondly as a photographer.

There is also a bonus in this…the fact is that, as with all acts of generosity and kindness, there is a ripple effect for everyone associated.

The Ripple Effect

The Ripple Effect

The niece of my very first Bella Forza client had this to say about her aunt’s session, which she attended:

“…the experience was wonderful…this process has a real ripple effect – i can feel the positive response and gratitude amongst my extended family as they see what you did for my aunt and as they hear the story from an objective viewpoint – very powerful!! …actually, from my perspective I see what you are doing as amazingly therapeutic and healing for the woman and also for her nieces and siblings, extended family and friends…”

Another client, who is a young woman with a young family, told me that she had noticed the positive and heartwarming reactions of those closest to her with regard to her portrait session and that she felt it might take quite a while for her to really ‘see’ all the ways that this session was meaningful to her family…she told me that she felt it was as though they had a ‘tangible’ thing to hold now, evidence she had gone through something very real and life changing and that she had made it through the fire!

A fellow I follow on Twitter, Terry Alex (#TA), today posted, “A single act of kindness is like a snowball going down a hill. It starts small but grows larger & more powerful the farther it travels.”

The Strength Package includes hair and makeup (to whatever extent my client wants!), a portrait session, and a beautiful framed print (with its digital file for their personal use) for only $350.  I am also, absolutely, more than happy to customize the package…it is my wholehearted desire to provide an amazing experience to my clients and I am open to customizing the session and package to suit each person individually.  If she wants a portrait with her best friend(s), her kids, her mom, her beloved pet….the world is open to us and I am open to being your ally in making this an incredible experience.

…maybe your best friend is going through a difficult time and you’d like a portrait together….maybe your mom is ill and this could boost her spirits, and she’d especially love one of your family together…maybe you simply wish to provide a buoy to a coworker or friend to remind her that not every day has to only be about treading water.

Let me help you do something extraordinary for the extraordinary woman in your life.  I promise that your loved one will be met with compassion, support, a willingness to go above and beyond, and that I will do everything in my power to have her leaving my studio feeling bathed in strength.beauty.grace.!

Please visit Bella Forza on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/bellaforzaportraits and share with your friends and family.  Let’s make some snowballs!

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

xo Lori

Bella Forza: Celebrating Strength.Beauty.Grace.

Sometimes we need to take our time, contemplate, ponder, dream, work, concentrate, and deliberate on things…sometimes we need to just take a leap of faith.  Today, after nearly three years of deliberation, I am taking that proverbial leap.  Bella Forza is officially launched and I am officially thrilled.

This story, seemingly, begins in May of 2010 when I was readying myself for a boudoir shoot.  Part of my session preparation included a professional mani/pedi.  The esthetician that day was this super lovely Irish woman who seemed part esthetician/part philosopher/part prophet.  We spent three hours together talking and, at one point, she stopped what she was doing and while holding my hands she looked in my eyes and said, “I see you working with people who are vulnerable; not everyone can do it but YOU CAN.”  I was blown away, I can’t convey in words how incredibly powerful that moment was between us.  In hindsight, I now see that she helped germinate a seed that I believe had been present for many years prior.

Following that encounter I confided in only a few people about wanting to photograph women facing serious illness.  My mom was diagnosed in February 1995 with fourth stage Breast Cancer and we lost her in the fall of 1997; sadly we don’t have any portraits of her that truly showcase her beauty, her fortitude, or her courage. I felt as though I could offer something real, an empathy borne of first hand knowledge together with a tangible piece of evidence conveying the beauty that resides within…but I didn’t have the required self confidence just yet.

Image

Mom with my sister and me, c. 1974

For nearly three years I have been thinking of this path but each time I gave it serious thought I would get hung up on fear: how would something like this be received, do I charge, am I good enough, am I compassionate enough, AM I ENOUGH???

Then, in October of 2012, I met the beautiful (and talented hair and makeup artist) Sarah Byrne.  We’d been ‘Facebook friends’ for a while and finally knew that we just had to meet in person (we felt like kindred souls).  During our very first meeting I confided in Sarah about my dream to help women facing serious illness and she confided in me about having the same desire! It was magical and motivating and real!  I am so excited that Sarah has chosen to be part of the Bella Forza team!

Who we are, truly are at our core, is evident in our eyes and smiles, regardless of our current situation and, perhaps, often in spite of it.  Yousuf Karsh, an acclaimed portraitist whose body of work I greatly admire, said, “There is a brief moment when all there is in a (wo)man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, hands, and attitude.  This is the moment to record.”  I am not comparing myself to the brilliant Karsh, simply communicating my desire to be just as good.  My clients will feel both my absolute commitment to creating a beautiful portrait of and for them and also my compassion for their journey.

It is important for me to say to you that this is not a ‘pet project’ wherein women who are vulnerable will need to ‘fit my aesthetic’; rather, this is ALL about my clients and THEIR journeys.  If a woman is newly diagnosed with, say, Cancer, she may wish to have a beautiful portrait before her treatments begin and she potentially loses her hair, her breasts, or whatever is necessary to preserve her life; perhaps a woman is mid treatment and is recognizing her inner strength and wishes to have a portrait conveying that part of her journey; or, maybe a woman has stood her ground against the beast, has won, and wishes to celebrate HOPE.  All of these women are welcome in my studio and each will be met with my open heart and my continually improving skills.

Two spectacular women (whom I will introduce you to shortly!) have already had their portrait created with Bella Forza; another beautiful soul will be in studio as soon as she is recovered from her recent surgery.  These women’s stories are powerful and I am so honoured to be in a position to help share their stories, grace, and wisdom.

Since the inception of Bella Faccia I have felt as though I was pursuing my dream and passion; since my first shoot for Bella Forza I feel as though I am pursuing my heart’s path.

Strength.Beauty.Grace.

With gratitude,

Lori