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:
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.
“Those who have suffered understand suffering and therefore extend their hand”.
I’m scratching my head, wondering how I missed the signs? How did I not get it? What had I been thinking?
You see, I thought I was the giver of a gift.
Now I realize I’ve been wrong this whole time. Instead, I have been on the receiving end of a beautiful treasure. There were no streaming ribbons, no pretty gift wrap or colorful tissue paper arranged a certain way, no special delivery.
I should explain. Last week I was given an invitation to photograph a beautiful woman one week before she passed away. She had cancer and was in hospice care. Several years ago as a fledging-photographer-wanna-be, I offered to take her twins’ high school photographs. I was grateful for the experience and provided the rookie “shoot & burn” experience. She loved the photographs and talked about having family portraits taken “some day”.
I learned a lot.
Fast forward a couple years. I received a tear-filled, barely audible phone call about family portraits:
…”are you available this weekend?…the cancer is back…in my spine…everywhere”…
She wanted more than anything to leave a legacy for her kids. She wanted them to remember her, smiling and happy, healthy-looking and laughing.
The gift-giver in me said, ‘yes, of course’.
Two frigid, winter days later, I drove to their apartment with my heart in my throat. I felt such pressure and nerves, hoping I could do an acceptable job for this family. I arrived to find everyone in their boxy white shirts, little available light and a woman with the pain of cancer so bad that she could not manage to sit down.
We shared a lot of special moments that day.
I learned a lot.
My photography business continued to evolve and on occasion I ran into her in town.
I saw her in March this year and asked if she would help me. I was adding a different style of portraiture, would she bring dress up clothes and would she mind curling her hair…I wanted to practice the posing, natural lighting and more importantly, the connection with the eyes.
She shared with me how good she felt trying on outfits the prior night. Her husband enjoyed her enthusiasm, she said. She was thrilled to dress up and moved into various poses easily, willingly giving me what I asked of her. I asked her to connect with my camera. To connect with me.
It was a wonderful session.
I learned a lot.
Her kids wanted to surprise her for a mother’s day photo this year–the surprise was getting two 20 year olds and a 7 year old in the same room! She laughed and enjoyed each frame with her children. I noticed their relationships differed slightly. Her son who towered over her made her laugh easily. His twin sister brought out the honest beauty of her mom, while the 7 year old mostly devoured the hugs. I remember her presence and laughter behind me when I asked her kids to jump on the trampoline that frigid day in May. She loved every second as we created memories. Her final Mother’s Day on earth.
Photographs make moments freeze in time. Assembling the people and allowing the experience to unfold then capturing it at the right moment is extremely powerful.
August. After a few weeks away from an internet connection, I wrote a blog post…hesitated for one split second then changed the entire thing*. I wanted to add a portrait and chose one of her and wrote about our session. I pressed ‘publish’ then sent her a message….
“hi! check out my new blog post, you’ll recognize a beautiful woman on it!”
Then I looked at her facebook postings. I called her. The cancer was everywhere.
She read my blog post then cried as she read it again. At 48 years old, she told me she finally felt beautiful. She didn’t have to hide behind someone else’s idea of “beauty”. She is beautiful and carries it with her. I was able to show her. She believed it one month before she passed away.
I visited with her in the last days of her life. She thanked me for all the photos over the years and mostly for the words I had written on my blog. She invited me to take more photos of her. I returned the following day to her hospice bed with my camera and a full heart.
She was exhausted, yet looked into my lens with the same invitation to “come in–visit my soul”. I went willingly and respectfully.
Later that night, a sense of urgency flooded me. I realized I had to go thank her for the gift she has given to me.
We hugged. We laughed and cried.
I thanked her from the bottom of my grateful heart.
I felt honored tonight as I left the funeral home. Her portrait – the one where she gave me that connection to her soul, the one I intuitively put on my blog, was enlarged and prominently displayed next to her ashes at her request. Her eyes invited everyone in that room to see her beautiful soul. My words about her were read as a eulogy.
My original post: *the invitation, WAVphoto.com, August 14, 2013 http://wp.me/s3rHYI-390