Amazing Strength – an after cancer Experience
I had the honor to photograph 39 incredible women, unique in their personalities, occupations, size, hair color and cancer treatments. I needed to photograph them so they could see themselves as the world sees them – beautiful and strong.
Each one of these women have been told those words we’ve all grown to fear – “you have cancer”. They dealt with their diagnosis, a variety of treatment, then decided to join Team Phoenix – a 14 week training program to complete their first triathlon. Crazy…especially for some of these women who had never swam before the training. The swim part of the triathlon was 1/4 mile in open water (in a lake, with seaweed, and fish, and many other swimmers). A 15 mile bike ride and 3.5 mile run/walk follow the swim.
I was a Team Phoenix 2017 Athlete. (You’re called ‘athlete’ on day 1 of training…sure beats being labelled ‘cancer survivor’). I watched so many women work really hard during practices – as I tried really hard to keep up with some of the others. Once in the water and my nerves calmed down a bit on race day, I finished the swim, biked, ran and crossed the finish line. I was able to watch as some of my fellow teammates finished, some in tears, others jumping for joy. They did it! They set out a crazy goal for themselves and completed it.
I saw such beauty in their smiles, in their joy, laughter & tears…their new-found confidence and strength. Their Amazing Strength. I knew I had to create their portrait. A portrait of their strength. So they will exist in a photograph for all time.
That’s how my ‘Amazing Strength – an after cancer experience’ personal project began. I asked for 25 volunteers from Team Phoenix – looking for all shapes and sizes. I was slightly blown away when I received almost 50 responses. I scheduled the first 25 women for a consultation and session. The consultation is part of my usual photography workflow. I want to know their story – I want to know who they are, I’m always thinking how I can make their image, their portrait unique, authentic, honest and different than anyone else’s image.
As I spoke with the first few women I realized that this group, Team Phoenix, has had an incredible impact on all of us. We were able to be our regular self – not someone who has cancer. We were able to get to know each other as we swam, biked and ran/walked in practice. For many of us, we had no idea what type of cancer our fellow athletes had. It didn’t matter. Cancer united us and allowed us to sign up for this life-changing experience. Cancer didn’t otherwise define us.
When we crossed the finish line of the triathlon, we became Team Phoenix Alumni. Although the entry fee is steep (cancer diagnosis required), it’s an association I’m honored to be part of. I realized this group of women will step up, step in and stand by your side when you need support, a good laugh, a shoulder to lean on or someone to ride their bike with you.
One of our Team Phoenix 2017 sisters passed away from cancer before I could take her photograph for this project. As my heart broke, my sense of urgency to photograph as many women as I could moved me into action. Sometimes the energy of the universe puts people in your path at the right time. My TP (Team Phoenix) sister, Jill, stepped in to organize the remaining consultations and photo sessions. In a true testament to the TP attitude, each of the athletes showed up for their session…in the Wisconsin winter months (wind, rain, below freezing temperatures, wind, snow, cold, wind)…with unbreakable spirit.
I am honored with their trust in me to photograph them. For some, swim/bike/run was probably easier than sitting in front of a camera for a photo session.
So, you may be wondering about the cancer part…
Sometimes even a photograph doesn’t tell the entire story. This group of powerful women have overcome so many obstacles. They’ve heard the dreaded words “you have cancer”. They have dealt with surgeries leaving scars in place, always a reminder. They’ve faced treatment in many forms often living with lasting side effects. They are mothers, daughters, sisters, co-workers, your boss and your best friend. They have also crossed the finish line of a triathlon. They define Amazing Strength.
39 Amazing Strength portraits include:
Athletes with many stages and types of breast cancer
Several triple negative breast cancer athletes (one celebrated 5 years! & another 10 years!)
5 year brain cancer athlete
Thyroid cancer athlete
Skin cancer athlete
One athlete who crossed the finish line while actively on chemo for a reoccurrence of ovarian cancer
Cervical, uterine, breast cancers…one athlete
An incredible assortment of chemotherapy, surgeries, reconstruction stories & radiation treatments
Team Phoenix reaffirmed who I was as a woman.
Cancer is life-changing in a bad way…Team Phoenix is life-changing in a good way.
I learned I will never give up on myself.
I sometimes hate talking about cancer.
I’ve taken ownership of my health & body to keep myself alive.
Cancer didn’t have control of me anymore.
Crossing the finish line I was ’emotionally restored’.
I am Strong Proud Alive & Redefined.
It’s a sisterhood – they get me & I get them.
There are silver linings in everything.
Every day is a gift.
Before TP I was too focused on dying to really LIVE.
Team Phoenix allowed me to love myself.
I’m optimistic about everything.
I found my inner athlete.
I look at the bright side.
I’m getting my competitive nature back.
Team Phoenix sounded way too badass to NOT do it.
Team Phoenix was good for my whole family.
Best place I’ve been in years & years.
I love this new ME – a big awakening.
Gave me pride to do the program & to finish it.
We pushed each other to be our best.
I wanted to show my kids that things happen in life–
pick yourself up and do positive things.
Team Phoenix made me a better leader at work.
Team Phoenix is a cancer-free zone.
I’m a resilient fighter.
I find joy on my bike.
Team Phoenix allowed me to love myself.
I felt I could start my life on a new page.
We built a connection, a trust.
I felt alive again.
I found a strength I didn’t know I had.
I’m proud of myself.
I have a new sense of what I can accomplish.
Until Team Phoenix, I was a woman with cancer waiting for bad news.
I’m optimistic about everything.
The day of the Tri, I knew it was a day of celebration.
I surpassed the barriers.
The 39 women in the black & white images are redefined by crossing the finish line of a triathlon after cancer diagnosis & treatment. Each of the women pictured has a story of courage & Amazing Strength. In their strength, I see their beauty which will exist for all time in their photograph. I’m grateful to each one of them for sharing their time, their story and their enthusiasm to be part of this project.
We all had a cancer diagnosis, cancer treatment, then signed up for a triathlon with Team Phoenix. A life-changing event that bonded women into sisters over 14 weeks of training. I was inspired by my teammates who had never swam prior to training, then swam 1/4 mile in a lake, biked 15 miles then ran/walked a 5k. Crossing the finish line was a moment like no other.
Team Phoenix was formed in 2011 by incredible people, innovative doctors who have seen the affects of cancer on women. A breast surgeon, a cancer physical therapist and a research oncologist. Together, they convinced a handful of women to be Team Phoenix. Since then, the team has grown each year. There are 60 athletes who will begin their training for TP2019 and take part in their triathlon in July. Strong Proud Alive & Redefined #SPAR.
This is a recap of the beautiful energy during the reveal & gallery opening:
To view & purchase photos and the photo book:
Donate to Amazing Strength:
I walked through the fallen leaves on a bright & brisk morning. I came across the field and walked the pathway toward it remembering my first visit many years and a lifetime ago. Back then, I was overwhelmed with emotion because the monument itself was beautiful, unique, powerful. I remember I had stopped in my tracks after it came into view. Masterfully created, mindfully placed.
Sacrifice finally recognized.
While I thought I knew what to expect having visited the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, DC before, the emotion hit me harder and more deeply this day. Perspective broadened, time passed, gratitude carved into my soul.
58,286 names etched into black granite.
Each name belongs. A son, a brother, a father, a friend.
The youngest name belongs to a 15 year old who lied about his age.
The memorial is a somber place standing out among the white marble momuments and tributes that surround it. The intention of the black granite surface is to reflect the trees and sky and the people who come to visit.
A place to grieve. A place to remember.
Tributes are carried to The Wall and left behind usually with tears of grief and sadness. A burden of the survivors. Flowers, letters, emblems of friendship and memories. A brand new Harley Davidson motorcycle — a gift to an only child from his dad, was left at the wall to honor the son who would never get to ride it.
The commitment continues to bring each one home to be buried in the United States.
Near each name is a small symbol:
a diamond means they are accounted for
+ symbolizes they have not been recovered and are still missing.
As the remains are discovered and returned home, the + is etched
into a diamond.
The + will be etched into a circle when, and if, they return alive.
In this big world, it’s the small things. One small gesture of human kindness speaks volumes to the heart.
Hollywood screen writers could make this stuff up, but it means so much more when it’s unprompted & genuine.
My son was ten when we moved half way across the country. Honestly, I was more concerned with my 13 year old daughter finding friends. My son was the one who would reach out to the underdog, befriend the new kid, listen patiently to the quiet one in class and was completely stunned when he found himself as that new kid without an ally. The course of events in a growing school district meant while new schools were being built, my son had the ‘opportunity’ to attend 4th thru 7th grades in different schools (one change due to our move).
The first day of another new school transition into 7th grade, he came home with a smile in his voice and said, “I finally found someone who speaks my language!” His language — drums. The boys talked drums and everything drumming, evaluating every rock band, drumming style, equipment set up and dreams of a big stage. High school finds two friends who enjoy the peaks & endure the valleys of finding out who they are, what they need from the world and continue a mutual respect of each other’s skills. Drumming connects them again, still.
The year of high school “lasts” has to happen to find their way into the big world.
They’ve played in the jazz band for the Jazz Dance for years. An incredible evening of music that hundreds of parents, grandparents, siblings and friends enjoy. These two kids alternate playing the drum set throughout the evening. The last song starts with my son on the set, the final song of the night, the last song of their years together as jazz drummers. The four hour evening rapidly coming to a close with the next down beat.
My son starts in with both hands & both feet moving with some innate, remarkable ability, dynamics known only to drummers. What I saw next humbled me. My son handed his extra sticks to his friend standing on the edge of the stage and nodded toward the cymbal…the slight nod of encouragement to, yes, you have to play, yes, now.
They speak the same language.
I ask him about it, his reply, a slight lift of one shoulder, its no big deal, mom. The small gesture spoke volumes to my heart.
Sometimes I have an opportunity to watch something really amazing.
I saw over one hundred volunteers work together to Give Kids A Smile…
107 kids to be exact.
Hundreds of hours were put in before the day even began. Scheduling the facility, generous donations, organizing & planning for mobile X-ray equipment, dental instruments, dentists, dental professionals, volunteers to escort the children – I could go on.
I had the opportunity to document the day. What I saw was incredible.
As a photographer, every place I looked was a photo opportunity – honestly, the lighting inside a gymnasium isn’t the best for photographs…but what I did see was a lot of kindness, a little nervousness and some fairly big smiles. As a mother, I saw kids getting a better chance. Some children had never seen a dentist for one reason or another. Some were here from countries where an annual visit to a dentist isn’t heard of. Some were local with out the privilege of dental insurance. The chance to be pulled up thru the cracks in society where a smile can be so valuable.
With a friendly face at check-in, a volunteer escorted each child to the mobile x-ray station where dental professionals waited to triage each patient based on the initial exam. Next stop: the tooth brushing arena. Education and hands-on brushing with some laughter on the side. The kids had to walk past the party area – a treat when their dental work is complete. A local entertainer showed off his juggling skills, a librarian read stories to younger children, and Miss Wisconsin & Miss Wisconsin Teen arrived & anxiety went away!
Dentists, hygienists, a variety of health professionals & administrators worked magic (and dental procedures, of course) on over one hundred kids that day. It was hard to capture with my camera what I felt in my heart. A kid knows when his or her smile doesn’t look or smell good. They know when there’s pain and might be afraid to tell someone. I saw hesitation then courage when getting into the chair and I also saw kindness and human kindness – a gloved hand reaching out to a clenched fist and holding the hand, I saw a gentle pat on a shoulder, ‘you’re doing great’.
Incredibly heart-warming when a kid was finished and flashed a genuine smile (sometimes still numb) feeling good about themselves.
‘You may encounter many defeats,
but you must not be defeated.
In fact, it may be necessary
to encounter the defeats, so you
can know who you are,
what you can rise from,
how you can still
come out of it’
This is from a high school football game. Giving up wasn’t an option.
Oconomowoc High School
Photo: MacKenzie Valley
A sense of community is a powerful feeling.
I could imagine it might grow old, having people around you all the time, who have known you your entire life. When I have the wonderful, yet rare moments to share the present with people who have known me as a child and have watched me grow it feels very much like home.
Our parents laughed, cried and created memories together during a lifetime of summers. Carving out a legacy. Several of us, reunited over the years, carry on the legacy and nurture the bond of a passing generation. Exchanges and laughter, updates and photos keep us current in each other’s lives.
Sometimes I walk down the dirt road, as I have thousands of times in my life, and hum the theme song from the TV show “Cheers”. I relate to “where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came”.
My sense of community~
Value Cherish Honor Enjoy Home