Twenty three months ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Around the same time, 650kms away from me lived a woman roughly my age, married and raising two young children, who was also just diagnosed with breast cancer. We met in an online community for young women with cancer, a group that has connected me with women that will be lifelong friends.

Marina is one of them.

We had the same chemotherapy regimen and she would read my blog to see what laid ahead for her because I was a week further along.  Despite going through exactly what I was going through, incredibly, when I struggled to get out of bed, Marina posted to me little gift packages with the sweetest cards. When I started to burn from radiation, we texted photos of our chests to each other and she shared what she had learnt from treatment. When my hair never grew back, she sent me her beautiful silk hair scarves (pictured) that she wasn’t using anymore. Later on, she brought me her wig when she visited me in my hometown.

This is us in my home town.
This is us in my home town.

Despite us both having aggressive, nodal positive breast cancer, we are positive for still being here, and now inextricably linked by our shared experience and friendship. Marina is such a brave woman and she has taught me a lot about myself.

Earlier in the year, Marina jumped on an extraordinary opportunity to tell her story through Canon’s “Shine a Light” promotion. Several months after we had completed our treatment, the Australian journalist Lisa Wilkinson chose Marina as her subject to photograph as a symbol of what matters to her. Shining a light on breast cancer was what mattered to her, and she wanted to capture an image of an incredibly strong survivor.

In the video below, Marina articulates the message that people see her as she is now. She doesn’t want to shy away from how breast cancer and a double mastectomy has physically transformed her.  Here, Marina is coming out of the other side of her breast cancer.  As if to say, “this is me, I’m happy with who I am, take it or leave it”. Bravery in spades!

A month ago, I had the pleasure of flying to Marina’s city. She wanted to enter an image of me in the National Photographic Portrait Prize (2015) in Canberra because she finds my story compelling.

This year the competition received the biggest number of entries in its history. Sadly, Marina’s images didn’t make the top two percent of thousands of submissions and although disappointed she didn’t make the cut, we wait with anticipation to see the final images selected when it is exhibited next year.

What is clear though, is Marina’s passion for photography and her incredible talent for it will go far. Marina turned to photography earlier this year as a positive focus in her life after the horrors of last year, and she has achieved so much in such a short time.

What was of interest in my story to Marina, was the cruel irony in me creating the Shitty Tittie Chemo Cut Challenge which can be viewed here, virtually celebrating the loss of my hair to chemotherapy with such positivity.  

And yet here I am fifteen months later, overweight and menopausal, wearing my wedding ring on my necklace because It doesn’t fit my lymphedema swelling in my hand from surgery. I am still without eyebrows, and if you zoom in you can see the facial hair I have from the hair drugs I take.  Let us not forget that ghastly hair!

But it’s not about the hair to me.  It’s about the other things that it represents; the loss of health, youth, fertility, breast sensation, beauty, intimacy, womanliness, femininity.  I think Marina has captured the essence of all of that so well. It can be seen in the tension in my eyes and forehead, in the anger with the wig. She HAS really nailed it. My story.

So, this is me. Take it or leave it.

TAKE WHAT YOU WANT AND PAY FOR IT: Shitty Tittie Chemo Cuts #1

Artist’s statement: The image title is derived from a Spanish proverb which is particularly pertinent to Lisa’s story. I met her in an online support community for young women with breast cancer. She had had long, thick, blonde hair for 37 years before chemotherapy commenced. Though grateful to be in remission, she has paid dearly; her hair and eyebrows have not regrown. Lisa’s suffering emerges from her desire for the return of her hair, not in the longing for her breasts that have been lost to cancer.

KEEP YOUR HAIR ON: Shitty Tittie Chemo Cuts #3

Artist’s statement: I met Lisa in an online support community for young women with cancer. When she wept after being told the loss of her long, luscious blonde hair and her eyebrows after chemotherapy was permanent, her hair specialist suggested she should be grateful ‘for her children’s sake’. This image depicts Lisa’s deep anger at this lack of empathy and her dissatisfaction with the solutions suggested to her – wigs, hats and scarves do not console her for the loss of her femininity.

When I look at Marina’s images I get choked up in the same way Marina did when Lisa Wilkinson showed her her images for the first time. There is grief and loss captured here, but there is also acceptance of self.  

I can’t thank Marina enough for asking me to be involved in this project.

Thank you also to our gorgeous friend Candy for her assistance with the titles and words. I would never have reached that 100 word limit on my own!