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Hey Cousin, Can You Take My Picture? A Breast Cancer Story.

When my cousin Mary Ann asked me to take photos of her I didn’t think much of it until she told me why. I had to think long and hard whether to accept the assignment or graciously decline because of possible backlash, and endless comments from my family.  I’ve known her since we were children and I’ve never known anyone as smart, strong willed, quick witted, and positive as her. Because of that I decided to accept the task of taking photos of her. She in many ways mirrors my determination to keep on fighting. In hindsight I’m blessed to be the one she chose. This session will always be a reminder of what I was put on this earth to do, and that is to take photographs that people will remember for the rest of their life.  With her permission I share her story.

It’s 3:26 a.m.  The 5th of April, 2012.  3 days from Easter, and in 8 hours I’ll be entering the operating room of the Menlo Park Surgical Center to have my left breast removed.  43 days, from the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday (February 22nd) to this day, since I’ve been told that I had mucinous carcinoma of the breast.  Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday. 

Should I find some significance?  Knowing me, I seek some a Holy connection to find some sense why I find myself battling cancer again for the 2nd time.

Summer of 1997, after 18 months of congestion, sinus blockage and a blocked Eustachian tube, I’m diagnosed with Stage 2 nasal pharynx cancer.  You know it’s not a common cancer when you need to be explained where that is exactly.  After 7½ weeks of radiation and 6 cycles of chemo…oh, and add losing 60 lbs., struggling to keep awake at my sister Gina’s wedding after a rough night of no sleep, throwing up 5 times to eventual dry heaves….eventually I made through—weaken but lighter.

I remember my shrunken deflated breasts and how, laying in bed, I took long strips of Scotch tape to temporarily hold them up.  My sad breasts.

I’ve always had a challenging relationship with my breasts.  From the age of 8 when they first started to swell to 40 years later to 40 DD.  Like some pubescents, I was embarrassed by them.  I was shy and resentful for their defiance to seek attention.  I covered them with baggy sweaters and parkas in warm classrooms.  Even through my 20s, It was only on special occasions—dancing with my girlfriends on a Friday night or on a rare date, that I truly appreciated them.

But I learned to be proud of them, take light of them, “Oh, my God, are those Real?!” comments become one of hilarity and compliment

Oh, right, the religious significance.  About a year or so before my 1st cancer, I had a vivid dream of walking up a nondescript ramp-like, corridor.  And as I made my way up the winding, seemingly endless path I pushed open a fairly large hospital-type door where I found an elderly frail man prone on an operating table.  Long hair, white, with a just as long beard on one end of the table and at the other end his feet protruding out of a long white gown.  And as I approached him, drawn to him by some purpose, without words I placed his withered feet to my bosom and embraced them.  Healing them.  And it’s at this moment that I recognize Him—Jesus.  He, without words, instructs me to return and I run.  Run back down the long corridor and outside.  Running.  A year or so after that dream I sought significance in THAT dream.  I knew I would make it out of the cancer of 1997.

I didn’t have a dream before this cancer.  It was found during an annual mammogram.  You couldn’t even feel it.  At 9 mm it was barely the size of the point of a Sharpie pen on paper.  It’s in front of my heart.  Where I hold my hand for the Pledge of Allegiance.  Where I cradle a baby in my arms, where it rests its head.  Where some babies confusingly try to suckle, where one little kitty tried to suckle.  Where I cuddle preschoolers in my arms after story time.  Where I love…  My family.  My husband.  Where I envelop people to my comforting bosomed embrace.

Just when, in the past five years I’d begun to flatter them in complimenting frames of wardrobe and womanhood.  Now, you know why it’s hard to let go even to 1 of my Twins, to Wallace or to Gromit (my husband’s pet names for them).  To my Girls

I’ll miss MY breast for it’s brought me pleasure, comfort but I want to find more comfort in my decision, to better my chances (even for just 3%) that the cancer will not return.  I will sacrifice to not pay the ultimate sacrifice.

I knew I wanted some photos taken before surgery.  I wanted to capture images of my left breast before it was GONE.  It wasn’t enough to take shots with a point and shot digital.  So, I asked my cousin, Ashton, if he would take some professional portraits of me.  I’ve been continually impressed by his work and so proud of him.  He was able to fit me in his schedule the next day.

The Photo Shoot:

Ask anyone.  The last time I glammed up was probably my wedding in 2003.  I normally don’t wear make-up, or fuss with my hair.  But I wanted the photos to be stunning, or at least as stunning as you can get a 48 year-old woman, Type-2 diabetic, high-cholesteroled woman who just found out she has breast cancer.

My sister, Amy, agreed to have the shoot at her house.  In the car, she asked if she could be my Fluffer.  I told her I didn’t think she meant to say that and told her the definition of a Fluffer.  Okay!  It was steadily raining, in fact for most of the day, so it wasn’t easy trying to keep my styled hair and fresh make-up from getting ruin.

Awkward at first.  I thought I would be fine but luckily Amy was there to ease some of my nerves.  She helped Ashton set up her living room.  Soon, after a few sips of wine to calm my nerves, the shoot became less about something serious and more fun.  Both Ashton and I made use of Amy’s help.  “Fluffer, will you adjust her scarf?”  “More wine, Fluffer!”  Never before did I feel even slightly glamorous or sexy, at least for the camera.   I hated getting my pictures taken.  I rarely take good pictures (of course, my wedding was an exception). Pouty lips, seductive poses.  I played to the camera.  Never a point did I take it too seriously.  Although I drew the line at a wet t-shirt shot.

My intention of the portraits was to keep the images of the before me, the “before mastectomy” me.  I agreed to share some more subtle shots with Portraits Without Borders along with my story.  If it gives inspiration to others the better.


Mary Ann Thomas

Cancer, Photography, and a 1000 Words – Guest Post By Jenn Martin

Photos may be worth a 1000 words, but they can’t speak of the emotional journey one takes during their battle with cancer.

We all know someone who has cancer, has battled & triumphantly won, as well as those who fought like hell but their lives were taken all to soon.  It’s beyond scary, those 6 little letters. Cancer are the words no one wants to ever hear, but sadly, it’s heard all to often. 


My heart has been touched by those stories I have heard, the bravery witnessed & the tears of emotions shared. So imagine taking a photo and seeing the story of perseverance through the eyes of another, to view that person’s journey in the mist of their greatest battle. To capture ones story with a click of a button.

Last year I started The Memories Foundation in honor of my cousin in law, Jessica, and her incredible battle with lymphoma. Through her I was inspired to start the foundation that offers photos, at no charge, to families whose loved ones are battling an illness, and would like to have some beautiful heartfelt photos as cherished memories. Since October is a month of breast cancer awareness and I asked family and friends if they had someone who would like to spend an hour with me and allow me to capture their true inner beauty while battling breast cancer. Through a friend, I met Stefanie.


Adorable in pink, shy under her baseball cap, I saw a beautiful, strong & vivacious woman. She bravely allowed me to capture her newly bald head, which to me is a sure sign of courage. We laughed & cried during her short session, but in the end we formed a bond that I truly cherish. Weeks later, Stefanie shared her emotional journey of how she found out about her cancer, the misdiagnoses, the treatments, the toll it’s taken on her body & family, but also the perseverance of staying strong & getting healthy for her beautiful little girl and husband.

Kathy with her grandkids

Little did I know that just a few months later, my own Mother would enter her own battle with breast cancer. Because of my time spent with Stefanie, I was able to handle the news & choices of my Mom’s own battle with cancer, with a more understanding heart.

Kathy with her kids

I’m proud to share that both Stefanie and my Mom are breast cancer survivors and in full remission. It’s been a long road for them both, however I’m hope, that I in my own way, both behinds the lens of a camera & as a person who cares for their souls, that they continue their lives with the strength and passion and love that they so beautiful share with others.

All my love,

Jenn Martin 

Owner of Jenn Martin Photography   www.JennMartinPhotography.com

Founder of The Memories Foundation  www.TheMemoriesFoundation.org



On Shooting Neurochromes – Guest Post By Skip Cohen

I finally arrived in Vegas at 5:30am after an 18 hour bus ride, and no sleep (I thought it was going to be nice adventure at the time…STUPID). After I grabbed a bite to eat I arrived at the Going Pro workshop two hours early. There was no one there, but a guy setting up his projector. To my amazement it was one of the speakers (the other is Scott Bourne) I traveled so far to see, and a man I’ve admired since the beginning of my photography journey. It was Skip Cohen. If you don’t know Skip he’s a writer, and was the former president of Hasselblad, Rangefinder Magazine, and WPPI. After telling him my nightmare travel story he was kind enough to give me his only book Going Pro and signed it! That was worth the travel pains. He also was kind enough to be a guest blogger on PWB.

So often a scene unfolds in front of us and we’re caught without a camera. So, what do you do? You can’t just walk away. The only thing you can shoot is a neurochrome. Neurochromes are pure memories occupying every little corner of your brain. They’re permanent memory “chips” not affected by any manufacturer. They have unlimited capacity. They’re never on back-order and they’re always free. You’ve got unlimited inventory, but you have to stay alert or, just like a wedding photographer who’s not paying attention, you’ll miss the moment.

Image by Cantrell Portrait Design

I spent three days with my folks last week. They’re in their eighties and my mother has fairly advanced Alzheimer’s. The moments when the “sun peaks out from behind the clouds” so you can have a conversation, are happening less and less. My mom and dad have been married for almost 64 years and through that entire time, they’ve been each other’s very best friends.

The other night we watched a little TV and like so many previous trips I had fun “tucking them in”. As I shut off the light I noticed they were holding hands. It wasn’t just a couple holding hands, it was my dad saying, “Don’t worry I’m here!” as my mother replied, “I know. If you let go I’m lost!” There were no words spoken between them, they just held hands, smiling and said good night.

No camera, no film – I could only shoot a neurochrome. But the image of the two of them, like a Hollywood scene of a lifeboat on rocky seas, hanging on and supporting each other without a single word ever spoken, left an image for me to cherish. The image was so strong, that in spite of people who will tell me this is an inappropriate post for a photography blog, I wanted to share it with you anyway.

As photographers you’re trained to capture memories. Your entire business model is about seeing those moments your clients might miss. Everything you do with a camera in your hands is about being somebody else’s eyes. It’s an incredible responsibility because neurochromes, while some have been known to stay vivid forever, most eventually fade. However, as photographers your images don’t need to disappear as long as you never compromise on the quality and effort you put into capturing and producing them.

I’ve got this wonderful vision of dad and mom holding hands and the expressions on both their faces. It’s a neurochrome and only mine to view. Do I wish I had a photograph of them holding hands? Absolutely, but there isn’t a camera on the planet that could have captured what I witnessed!

Photo by Gregory Heisler

You can follow Skip Cohen at Skips Photo Network.