wp_head() Hey Cousin, Can You Take My Picture? A Breast Cancer Story. « portraits without borders
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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