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:
Celebrating 39 women and their Amazing Strength in photographs. Redefined by crossing the finish line of a triathlon after cancer diagnosis & treatment.
I’ve been doing a lot of celebrating recently…my son’s graduation from Army Logistics University, a visually-stimulating visit to Cuba, and a clean mammogram this week. In the middle of all that, I’m hanging photographs of incredible women in a gallery exhibit. Amazing Strength is my personal photography project showing each woman her courage, strength and beauty which will exist in a photograph for all time.
They are images of your girlfriend, your wife, your sister, your boss.
I watched my teammates train for 14 weeks. Some crossed the finish line laughing and elated, others sobbing in tears. Strong, Proud, Alive & Redefined. I saw their strength and in their strength, I saw their beauty. I needed to photograph these women! Many had never swam before, others hadn’t been on a bicycle in 30 years, yet they signed up to do a triathlon. Cancer didn’t stop these women – it made them more determined to live.
We were all Team Phoenix athletes and now, Team Phoenix Alumni.
The exhibit opens Saturday, March 9, 2019 6-9pm and closes March 17th, 4pm. Every day I’ll give a gallery talk at 2pm. Genetti Gardens & Studio, 611 Bleeker Street, Delafield, Wisconsin.
Amazing Strength, Phase 2 is in the creative process. Any and all donations are gratefully accepted at http://www.plumfund.com/fundraising/amazingstrength
You are a masterpiece of nature and deserve to be a work of art, hanging in the most important galleries for the world to see.
And just as the Phoenix rose from the ashes, she too will rise.
Returning from the flames, clothed in nothing but her strength,
more beautiful than ever before. SHeartz
Kicked Cancer √
Completed Triathalon √
Updated Professional Headshots √
Even in her “before” image, she’s a beautiful woman!
Professional Headshots and Personal Branding
Wendy Andrews Photography
Several weeks ago, I posted this photo and caption ‘5 years ago, I became an Adirondack 46er’. The photo came up in my Facebook Memories on July 25th. I remember my emotions when that image was taken. That morning started with a drizzle of cool rain and an overcast sky which did nothing to deter me and my hiking partner from our hike of the day.
The photo is me on Big Slide Mountain in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, holding a small, circular patch, tears in my eyes and grateful that the moment was finally happening. It’s been said, “They don’t give out that patch just for walking down Main Street”! I did it. I had just hiked my 46th peak. It took me a long time to hike all 46 mountains over 4,000 feet. It was an enormous goal which required a lot of physical strength, a bit of courage and plenty of determination.
I had the most incredible hiking partner who would always show up well-prepared with more enthusiasm for hiking than I knew existed. We knew safety was our priority, yet there wasn’t a hike where we ever turned back. Rain, hail, wind, mud. There was no whining (ok, maybe I whined a little ascending Seward Mountain in a downpour) …no “I can’t do this”, or “why did we do this hike”. I learned a lot about my hiking partner during our miles over the mountains. I learned a lot more about myself.
I posted that photo ‘ 5 years ago I did this…blah blah.’ The question that really needed to be answered was, Wendy, What Have You Done Lately?
On July 30, 2016, I finished a 5K.
Well, yes. To me is was a big deal. You see, I made it to the 7am start of the race (a 90 minute drive). My goal was to start it, to finish it and I hoped to complete it in under 45 minutes.
I had finished Radiation treatment for Breast Cancer on July 20, 2016.
When I crossed the finish line with my son along side of me, I was elated, exhausted, ready to burst into tears and laughing – at the same time. I wanted to remember this moment as crossing the finish line of cancer. I wanted to run further than cancer could. I wanted to be done with the appointments, the treatments, the endless discussion and research of cancer. I wanted to go back to my life.
(Honestly, when I have another ‘memorable moment’ photo opportunity–could someone please hand me a towel to wipe my sweat, and kindly mention to me to fix my hair…? Thanks)
The cancer diagnosis to me is like being a waiter in a very busy restaurant. The waiter has a huge tray filled with plates of delicious food and beverages in pretty glasses – and the waiter is about to leave the kitchen – little does the waiter know that someone is coming IN the OUT door of the kitchen. The tray and its contents end up everywhere, mostly broken into pieces on the floor. Nothing looks the same. Nothing will ever be the same. It’s a very big mess and a long time before it’s cleaned up.
I’ve been on the care-giving side of cancer – which really is no picnic. I’ve now seen both sides as care-giver and person diagnosed with cancer.
I was extremely fortunate for many reasons. As I waded through the diagnosis, I came in contact with some amazing humans. A Radiologist who, while most were obsessed with Pokemon GO!, he was diligent in doing what he does really well and was paying close attention to my scan. And a surgeon who is gifted in her craft and even more, in her role as the most caring human I’ve met in a very long time. I’ll write more about her-she deserves her own story.
Three biopsies and two surgeries really didn’t fit into my workout plans very well. Once I received the OK to exercise after the last surgery, I felt better emotionally. (This is by no means medical advice to anyone.). I then faced Radiation treatments. I had to find a way to stay focused and to get through the 21 days marked on my calendar. You see, everything else in the world becomes less of a priority. There’s less energy to complete all the usual tasks of life. My work as a photographer started to expose gaping holes on my calendar.
I made a decision to take some control in a situation where I really had so little control. Every day after radiation treatment, I went to my gym and promised myself I would run on the treadmill for 20 minutes. Every day. Miles didn’t matter. I thought I could do anything for 20 minutes. There were a couple days where I sat in my car in the gym parking lot, doing my best to gather strength to walk across the parking lot and go inside. No one at the gym knew of my cancer. There were a couple days where I felt I was towing a refrigerator behind me. I had to walk some of those minutes. I was grateful I could move forward – one step. The exhaustion from radiation treatment is real. The effects are cumulative. I remember Day 8 on the treadmill was really challenging. Exhausting. The next day I felt better.
I needed to focus on finishing and being done with cancer. I signed up my son and I for the ‘Runway 5K’ – an opportunity to run the world’s busiest runway at EAA in Oshkosh, WI. If you’re an airplane buff you’ve heard of EAA. It’s an amazing event. My son asked if I wanted him to run with me. Usually I run alone with music but was grateful for his offer, his company. He kept up a steady commentary pointing out some of the thousands of planes parked on the grass, taxiing and taking off on that overcast morning. I mentioned to him before the start that if I stopped running, to just say “keep moving forward, mom”. We ran the whole way. OK, that’s not a fair assessment. Like a thoroughbred under rein, he was doing a slow jog, I was just trying to keep my feet moving.
We were coming up on the last mile. I was exhausted. I was grateful that the sun was not out. My skin was still hot. I wanted to stop.
I had to dig very deep to keep moving. I needed a positive thought in my head but came up empty. I briefly recalled my 46er finish, but that was too much energy to summon. And in one instant, something came over me that it’s not about me. I could do this last mile for someone who can’t. Immediately I found energy inside. I dedicated the last mile to a woman I met during radiation. We had started radiation the same day. Her cancer story has been non-stop, 24/7 since last October. She’s had chemo, double mastectomy surgery and wasn’t finished with radiation yet. I carried her in my heart across the finish line.
The waiter’s tray is a mess on the floor of the busy restaurant. There’s some yelling and screaming and lots of chaos. I calmly stand up, take a deep breath, I inhale and exhale. I pick up the tray and decide what to place back onto it, if anything.
Most people don’t know I had Breast Cancer. Apparently, as my hair was still intact, people thought I ‘looked great’! Cancer hair loss is usually related to chemotherapy. In a future post, I’ll write more about my chemo story. I’m very fortunate.
I thought I was going to pick up my life where I left off after my ‘6 month Vacation’…(ugh, predictive type always fixes that)…after my ‘cancer treatment of 6 months & Radiation’ – that world doesn’t exist anymore.
Sadly, there are a lot of cancer stories. Many are painful stories with unfortunate endings. Mine is filled with amazing people, mountains of kindness and incredible moments.
I’d like to share them with you.
You deserve to become
a work of Art
because you are
A strong woman is one who feels deeply & loves fiercely.
Her tears flow just as abundantly as her laughter.
A strong woman is both soft & powerful.
She is both practical & spiritual.
A strong woman in her essence is a gift to the world.
I see strength & beauty.
I’m grateful for a woman’s trust on the other side of my camera and wonder how she interprets my gestures when I see THE shot. Often I wipe a tear from my eye when things line up and I have the photograph to show her how beautiful she is to the world.
I see a woman’s strength, not in skinny, perfect make-up or designer clothes. I see strength in her journey up to the moment I press my shutter. I see her beauty shine when the wind messes her hair, laughing with her girlfriend, on a mountain, in the woods.
She’s the woman I love to photograph, her stories, pain, resolve, laugh lines and
all the reasons she is who she is today.
That is real. She is a beautiful woman.
She will exist in my photographs for all time.
I will show you how beautiful you are.
©Wendy Andrews Photography
A strong woman is one who feels deeply & loves fiercely. Her tears flow just as abundantly as her laughter. A strong woman is both soft & powerful. She is both practical & spiritual. A strong woman in her essence is a gift to the world. -unknown author
I’m always grateful for a woman’s trust when she’s on the other side of my camera. While I attempt to make her feel relaxed & beautiful, I wonder how she interprets my gestures, especially when I see THE shot. (I’ve been told) I sometimes make sounds – like an audible smile noise, sometimes just “yesyesyes”, quite often a tear forms in my eye when everything lines up & I hope the photograph looks something like my vision!
I see a woman’s strength. Its not in the form of skinny, in perfect makeup, in designer clothes. I see strength in what she’s been through on her journey up to when I press the shutter. I see her beauty shine when the wind messes her hair, when she laughs with her girlfriend, when her feet are bare, in the earth, on a mountain, splashing in the shallow water of a chilly lake.
She’s the woman I love to photograph. With her stories, with her pain, with her resolve & her laugh lines and all the reasons she is who she is today. That is real. That is a beautiful woman.
Hiking boots. 4:30am alarm. Fender-bender.
3 Generations. Mountains. Gratitude.
Years ago, my hiking partner & I would greet the day with an early alarm. Rising with the alarm would be crazy to assume, as neither one of us would have slept a wink, knowing we had the opportunity to hike together in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains of upper New York State. One of the first on the trail that day gave us the chance of collecting all the spider webs, making our footprints in the mud from the night before and getting a jump on the summer daylight. (the truth: most days it rained when we hiked…there was no beautiful sunrise).
Back then, we hiked with a mission to finish hiking all 46 peaks in the Adirondacks over 4,000 feet in elevation. Once we accomplished that goal (and it was a huge accomplishment) everyone wondered “what’s next?” will you continue to hike or just pack it in now that you’ve accomplished your goal? I knew instinctively that I’d return with my camera. It wouldn’t be a hike, it would be a photo op. The photo documentation from our hikes had consisted of: arrival at the peak – sometimes with a marker or a plastic disc with the mountain name – in the rain – the swift removal of my point & shoot from the zip lock baggie, one shot at a selfie with both of us in it, the return of the camera to the zip lock & trying to get below the tree line for shelter so we could take in a quick energy break.
During the miles of footprints on the trails I saw so many beautiful places that I wanted to photograph. Carrying a camera & spending the time to stop & start seemed counter to our success at that time. However, in my mind, my creative thoughts flowed constantly…almost as strong as the river we ascended Seward Mountain in. I pictured a beautiful vista – we passed several – with a strong woman in red, in complete possession of her beauty and power with the Adirondack mountains as a stunning & supportive backdrop. The mountains with all their beauty couldn’t shine as bright as a strong woman. The combination, in my mind, was powerfully crazy. It kept my thoughts occupied as the long winter months dragged on, just waiting for the opportunity, the stars to align, the moment when I could look thru my camera, press the shutter and capture the beauty, the strength, the elegance, the moment.
Until it happened.
A small window created itself. Then closed. The only day for a hike was postponed by a fender-bender. It couldn’t be helped. Fortunately no one was injured, just the mounting anticipation postponed. It had already been two years, what’s another day?
Funny thing when we listen to the energy of the universe.
The fender-bender was only to delay our hike, avoiding heat, humidity and…rain & thunderstorms. The weather the following day was…incredible. It began with a gift of a beautiful blue moon reflecting on the lake. We hiked a long road into the base of the mountain, uphill all the way.
I carried my pack with my usual hiking gear and an additional pack with my camera, a few dresses and flow-y fabric and a few assorted props. Gratefully, my hiking buddies/models helped to carry the additional pack. We quickly ascended to our destination. Up. And more Up. I had only seen photographs of our location, sight unseen but listening to the universe.
The day was just dawning with beautiful sun rays peeking through the trees along the trail. The birch trees glowing white. The river singing alongside our path. My only Adirondack hike of the year and I anticipated the smell of balsam. I wasn’t disappointed.
With excitement came our last turn off the uphill trail, I was leading and as the trees parted, I came out onto the granite ledge. W. O. W. All I could say was “wow”…with that raspy, not-really-a-sound but more of an exclamation, almost to myself…and to the universe. Gratitude flowed over my soul as I looked out onto the most beautiful sight I had only dreamed of. Mountains to the left and to the right, mountains I had climbed over 25 years, with the beautiful blue lake, nestled in between. Blue sky and white clouds as far as I could see. There really are no words when you come across such majesty. Nature is an incredible editor, making everything just so.
My girls, hiking buddies, taking in the view as well, were psyched! I had packed a couple dresses and fabric – game ON. Hiking boots and beautiful dresses! I could not contain my excitement for another minute. The three of us, bonded by legacy. Our fathers had known each other years ago at a local camp (the Greatest Camp in the Universe). We reunited recently, after one of the connectors passed away. We were together to sprinkle some ashes in his beloved mountains.
Our hike quickly erupted into a photo session…my vision came to life right before my eyes! It’s always a wonderful feeling when others will take your lead and trust you immensely – to allow me to coach their body into a moment and wait for me to photograph it. Completely vulnerable. Strong. Incredible. Feminine. Powerful. Without a doubt, beautiful.
We laughed. We worked hard. Almost as hard as the hike to get here. My vision had come to fruition. These women made it happen. I was filled with gratitude beyond words. Just images.
The final series was with both women. A bond with roots 50 years in the making. We are the middle. Our sons were also at the Greatest Camp in the Universe this summer, together. Continuing the legacy of their grandfathers.
I positioned the models on the edge of the cliff, allowing their poses to naturally flow, as the clouds came over and covered the sun, as the breeze blew cool air through their hair, their hands connected, the moment captured.
As I pressed my shutter for the final time that morning, tears fell from my eyes. The beauty. The majesty. The honor. I knew that was my final frame. There could be no more.
Gratitude poured from my soul, from my eyes. My vision of my hiking partner in a red dress on a mountain, strong, beautiful, came to life. The legacy and friendship between three people captured forever.
On a mountain.
Remember, when you see a woman at the top of a mountain,
she didn’t just fall there.
When sleeping women wake,
mountains will move.
Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take,
but by the moments that take our breath away.
Climb the mountains to get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you as the sunshine into the trees.
The winds will blow their freshness into you
and the storms their energy,
while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
Happy Birthday, Pam.
I wish you: sunny hikes, great views, dry socks,
only gummy bears, the last 50 yard jog
and another lifetime of reasons to celebrate!