As part of our annual #NoLessAWoman campaign, this Breast Cancer Awareness Month we join with photographer David Jay whose stark portraits lay bare the often hidden side of human life.
A raw quality and realness in David’s images allow us to glimpse the humanity and strength of his subjects, as we observe in the portraits of young woman with breast cancer from his series, The SCAR Project (an acronym for Surviving Cancer Absolute Reality).
David has worked as a fashion photographer and began shooting The SCAR Project in 2005 after a close friend was diagnosed with breast cancer at just 29 years old. In a constant effort to dispel any stigma surrounding mastectomies, David photographed the women at different stages of breast cancer, illuminating their beauty, strength and character. The project now includes 100 portraits.
We share five stories from The SCAR Project where the women candidly discuss their experiences with breast cancer. Some of the women are still alive; others have passed away since they had their portraits taken and recorded their memories. Be inspired by all of their stories and support their cause – and help us to raise awareness.
We are also proud to bring you the story of Shannon for the first time especially for this year’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with portraits shot by David. Shannon tells us about her diagnosis, subsequent mastectomy and her decision to forego breast reconstructive surgery.
Shannon has also written of her experiences with breast cancer and we share her words here.
My name is Shannon Montgomery and I have cancer.
That is not a sentence I ever imagined having to say, but on October 27, 2016, it became my reality. I had started a new job around 6 weeks before, was still breastfeeding my (then) 8-month-old daughter, caring for my 2.5-year old and just feeling on cloud nine. Everything was clicking into place in my personal life. Sure, there were the day to day struggles and life, but I was happy.
That day caused a total shift in my life.
Right around the time I started my new job, I got mastitis. I honestly thought it was because I was pumping more and direct breastfeeding less. No biggie. A round of antibiotics and the pain and swelling disappeared. However, there was still this lump.
Any woman who has breastfed or pumped knows that your boobs do CRAZY things while you are feeding a baby. I am a nurse. I chalked it up to residual inflammation and that it would eventually go away. So, I ignored it… for about 6 weeks.
I came home from work a few days prior to diagnosis and was playing on the floor of my infant’s nursery with both girls. I was lying flat on my back. I looked down and my right breast was a completely different shape than my left. When did that happen???
There is a reason that your doctor tells you to do your monthly self breast exams in the shower, arms raised, then arms down, then in front of a mirror, then lying down. It matters. I had ignored the warning signs. I never looked in the mirror and never did exams lying down. For me, mine really only was pronounced when I would lie flat on my back.
I was quickly poked, prodded, scanned, biopsied and informed that I had Stage 3, Triple Negative, Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, High Grade. I. Had. Cancer…. What. The. Hell. I was 30! I had babies! It’s not possible! But it was and it is.
I have since undergone 16 rounds of 3 different types of IV chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, lymph node dissection, 28 round of radiation and I am back on another oral chemotherapy until the end of October 2017. The additional chemotherapy is because I still had active cancer cells seen on pathology at the time of my surgery. Chemo didn’t kill it all… lovely.
I’m not bitter, nor am I angry. Cancer has actually been a blessing. Who else gets to prioritize their life at such a young age? Without truly facing my mortality and realizing just how fleeting life is, I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much.
My children’s laughter is the most beautiful sound on the earth. I have realized that sometimes I just have to stop, breathe, and enjoy. While I still enjoy the hustle and bustle of life, it is not my end all, be all. Life is about the journey, not the destination. I am thankful I truly can appreciate what that means now.
I am part of a cancer support group through the Young Survivor’s Coalition called YSC Palmetto Pals. They have been my life line and source of strength through challenging times that only another survivor would understand. Our motto is “Survivor from Day One.” The moment you are diagnosed, you are already a survivor.
It is part of what helped to me to make the decision to stay flat. I am the only one in my support group that hasn’t reconstructed or tried to reconstruct at some point and I never will. Being an OR nurse for almost 4 years of my career has shown me the other side. Yes, many women have good results, but those that don’t may struggle for years with countless surgeries. I have heard the personal stories from my survivor sisters.
I was going to try and reconstruct, but I couldn’t get all of my doctors on the same page with a timeline. My plastic surgeon wanted to wait at least 6 to 8 weeks post- chemo to start surgery and my oncologist and breast surgeon both said I was safe for surgery at 2 to 3 weeks. I am grateful I didn’t wait. I still had multiple lymph nodes with cancer, as well as a tumor that was still active. Boobs aren’t worth dying over. (My actual comment was “I’d rather be alive and flat, than have great tits in a casket…”)
So, this is me now. Flat & Fabulous (just like the amazing online support group I am a part of). I am proud of my “battle hardened” body. I no longer see stretch marks or my C-section scar. I don’t linger on the cellulite or the extra weight that I am still carrying around from all the steroids they have pumped through my body. No hair? No problem. My body is AMAZING and I am PROUD of it and all it has accomplished in its short 31 years.
For some, cancer is a curse or a punishment. For me, it has been a blessing. I have learned to love and appreciate my body. I have learned to cherish the small moments that make life worth living. I have learned to accept help from others. My faith in Jesus is stronger than it has ever been. I lowered my walls and am enveloped in the love of an amazing church family. I appreciate my friends and my family more than I can ever explain.
Life is still throwing me curveballs that I never expected, but cancer has prepared me for anything. Bring it on life, bring it on.
Vanessa was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 25, which eventually spread to her brain. She passed away in February 2014 aged 33.
Vanessa left behind her own words shedding light on her experience with breast cancer.
Breast cancer is a part of my life but it does not define me. It will never be ALL that I am or ALL that I do. I don’t want to be part of the mold that breast cancer survivors have been confined to. It’s not always pink ribbons and charity runs. Breast cancer is often glamorized and commercialized.
In reality, there’s a duality of life and a human element that everyone can relate to. Yes, I have breast cancer, and yes, it is hard, and yes, it’s an ongoing challenge. BUT everyone has their own struggles. Some are hidden and not as public, but they are still very real. The secret hardships and the public battles we all face are valid and important.
I was diagnosed at age 25 with stage 3A breast cancer. I underwent 20 weeks of dose dense chemotherapy, had a right modified radical mastectomy with node dissection, completed 25 treatments of radiation, and still have to have a left prophylactic mastectomy and bilateral tram-flap reconstructive surgery. I lost all my hair, looked like ET, got my boob hacked off along with nine lymph nodes in my armpit, got zapped so much that my skin burned and bled, and will need to cut open my stomach and relocate my fat and muscles to my chest. I think sometimes I am so good at putting on a pretty face and acting all put-together that some people don’t realize the extent of everything that breast cancer survivors go through.
My scars and my words are only half of the story. They don’t show the emotional and private struggles that are continuously present. They don’t show the burden that my family has willingly endured. They don’t show the lifestyle changes and limitations that come with breast cancer. But they don’t need to. I’ve never wanted to be the center of attention, or be regarded as “special” or “brave”. I don’t need to be pitied or felt sorry for. Instead it is my hope that people reconnect with themselves and reconsider what is truly important in their lives, and to celebrate it.
Breast cancer has forced me to step out of the box and to challenge myself, whether I want to or not. In life there’s a beautiful balance of happiness and sadness, awareness and unawareness, acceptance and rejection, blessings and misfortunes. These dualities are the moments that define life.
The SCAR Project embraces these everyday, personal happenings of life, and through these photographs, beautifully portrays every woman’s unique situation. As part of The SCAR Project, I can “just be me”. No covering up or masking the truth. No pretending that everything is fine. Here I am. This is me now. This is my life.
The following recount of Vanessa’s story is inspired by the memories of her partner, Billy, in a moving tribute.
The fierce, hopeful and loving Vanessa in this picture is now dead.
When the photograph was taken, her husband Billy and Vanessa had only recently learned that her cancer had metastasized to other parts of her body. The previous 4 years of breast cancer – of treatments, travel, surgeries and caregiving – already had them weary. When Billy looks at this picture, he remembers feeling utterly exhausted, and now they were facing an even bigger challenge.
“Not a day goes by that we don’t think about Vanessa, and miss her kind, impatient, beautiful, supportive self. Vanessa inspired us by her passionate drive to make the most of every day she got, so now we continue to live sincerely in her honor.”
The stage 4 breast cancer further progressed to Vanessa’s brain and caused profound and devastating changes to her mood and personality. Billy’s caregiving role was non-stop and presented new heartache every day. Daily life was put on hold for Billy and Vanessa’s sisters and mom so they could spend as much time as possible being present with Vanessa, for what turned out to be 21 months of home hospice care before her death in February 2014.
Leah lives in a rural part of Alabama, USA. At 18 years old, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent treatment through government insurance, Medicaid.
Following a mastectomy she had an unsuccessful reconstruction – the insurance company would not cover a second procedure. Leah recounts her story:
When most people find out that I was diagnosed at such a young age their face kind of freezes and they ask several times if I’m telling the truth. Like I would lie about something like that. But when I was diagnosed, I did the same exact thing to my doctor. I was put on birth control at a young age, maybe around 14 years old. My doctor explained to me that I already had the tumor, but the birth control made the tumor grow 5 times larger in size. When I had my first ultrasound the nurse said things looked “suspicious”. That led to a mammogram which repeated that same dreadful word. That word has freaked me out since then. A biopsy confirmed that it was more than just “suspicious”.
I don’t think I could have been more scared about my first chemo treatment. Everything looked so strange; the smell was odd. The older women in wigs and scarves would stare at me and talk, wondering why I was there. I soon became one of the girls, but I would never wear my wig to chemo. We all knew what a bald head looked like. My nurses were some of the nicest people I ever met. It’s sad to say that didn’t make chemo any easier on my two hour ride home. During my six months of chemo I was taking a Lupron injection that would protect my ovaries and put me in temporary menopause. So, I was a 55-year-old in an 18-year-old body. Hot flashes and all.
Six months later my tumor reduced from 5.0cm to 1.1cm. I originally had another small tumor but after chemo it was non-existent. My right mastectomy went well, until I looked down to a lumpy scar that had a tissue expander underneath. I didn’t feel like a woman; I didn’t know what I felt like except for crying. So that is what I did. A few months later my tissue expander was about the size of my left breast. I got home after my radiation treatments were finished. Then the worst was about to come.
I became extremely sick a few days after I came home. I had to be rushed to the hospital. My tissue expander was infected due to radiation and I had a surgery for it to be taken out. I was put on Medicaid shortly after my surgery. I went over a year with just one breast – I think that was the worst when it comes to physical appearance. I would cry when I couldn’t wear a bathing suit or a strapless dress. Recently I had a left mastectomy because I was so young being diagnosed with breast cancer. I also had a 13-hour breast reconstruction surgery.
Overall I’m thankful for my family, friends, and my experience with The SCAR Project. These beautiful women show me I’m not alone in this battle.
Jolene was just 17 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and passed away at 25. Shortly before her death, David took the final photographs of Jolene. She had plans to attend the opening of The SCAR Project exhibition in New York as guest of honour, but had died just before the event.
In her own words, Jolene’s story:
I was first diagnosed with cystosarcoma phyllodes when I was only 17 years old. At that time, none of my doctors had ever even heard of it. Cystosarcoma phyllodes account for less than 1% of all breast tumors and they are also part of the sarcoma family. It recurred three times until I finally had my double mastectomy in February of 2009 at the age of 23 and at that time we learned that it had metastasized and I was diagnosed as stage IV.
I wanted to shoot for The SCAR Project because it seemed like an amazing opportunity to make a difference and help young women become more aware about breast cancer. It was also something very emotional for me. It helped me embrace my scars and realize that they are something beautiful and they are forever a part of me. I also see it as something to leave this world after I’m gone. Something for my family to look at and never forget the fight that I fought for my life.
Thank you for giving me, and all of the other amazing women I’ve met on this journey the opportunity to create something beautiful in the midst of something that most people would say is ugly. This project is an inspiration to others to realize that life is beautiful. Whether it is with boobs, without boobs, with hair, or without, there is beauty in everything!
In memory of Jolene, one of her close friends shares a tribute:
Jolene’s passing during The SCAR Project NYC Exhibition in October 2011 reminded us all that the absolute reality of cancer is that not everyone survives. It is a horrid, hateful disease that does not care if you are only 17 years old, like Jolene was, when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. It does not care if you are only twenty-freaking-five when you lay down your pink boxing gloves and go to your rest in peace after kicking cancer’s ass for 9 years, like Jolene did. Cancer does not give a rip if it’s 2 weeks before your 26th birthday and you have plane tickets to NYC to The SCAR Project exhibition, where your portrait is hanging, and your SCAR sisters are all waiting to hang with you, as was the case with the cruel timing of Jolene’s passing during opening weekend. Cancer does not care. But we do. And we remember Jolene. We will always remember and love you, beautiful Jolene.
Candice Rae D
Candice was 30 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer – 9 years after she first sought help from doctors. Read Candice’s story below.
I was 1 when they found out I was deaf. 1. I tried to talk but no sound came out. They thought I was trying to chew gum. My mom tried to bang a pot near me, I didn’t turn. Severe to profoundly deaf. 1.
I was 15 when I realized what gay meant and that it applied to me. I didn’t want to be gay. I was not normal. I was already a deaf freak with no friends because I could not communicate. Now God wanted me to be gay? He’s asking too much. 15.
I was 17 when my left breast changed. 17. I was in the hallway near my bedroom of my childhood home when I felt it. It got hard, and weird but no real lump. I kept walking and pumped up the volume to my Mariah Carey CD. 17.
I was 21 when my breast leaked discharge. 21. Ok, I was certainly an alien from another world. Deaf, gay, abnormal breasts… wtf. The doctor said it was normal without even checking it under a slide. 21.
So I leaked and leaked until I was 28. Five doctors later all telling me I’m normal (I’m deaf, gay, with a drippy boob, you want to tell me I’m normal???) The leaking stopped. That must mean its ok. 28.
I was 29 when I finally felt a lump… THE lump. Oh lawd, I have too much on my plate. My foster baby is screaming for attention, my newly adopted daughter from India, languageless is climbing the walls. Seriously, it has to be a cyst. I check the internet. 80% chance its a cyst. Do cysts grow 4 cm in one week? Well cancer can’t possibly grow that fast so it must be. Gut can be heard over the kids (deaf ears or not), “YOU FOOL IT’S CANCER!!!”
I let that sinking feeling sink in. I’m too busy for this. I go warm a bottle. Two months later the “cyst” isn’t going away, the kids aren’t going away either. They need me. So I schedule a mammogram. I knew it was cancer. It wouldn’t stop telling me it was cancer. Despite my own doctor, mammogram specialist, and my own mother telling me I’m fine that I’m a hypochondriac, it told me it was cancer.
Therefore, baby in one arm, chasing after my little Indian trying to teach her sign language, I went on a relay service twice a day, for two months, to beg my doctors for a biopsy. I begged, and begged. I had health insurance, the good kind. I was a teacher after all. They would not give it to me. Why? Why? I tied up their phone lines. You have no idea how hard it is for a single mom of two kids to call and beg a doctor for a biopsy twice a day for an hour or so a day. They said it was impossible for me to have breast cancer. I was too young. They treated me like I was stupid. They were stupid.
I gave up. The kids needed me. Then the baby moved, I lost my job, I moved back to New York. Grieving the loss of a child and giving up on breast cancer. 29. I tried two more doctors, then gave up. I heard a whisper… I listened to it. I was 30 now after all, I must be old enough to have breast cancer right? Dr. Kelly, checked my right breast. I still did not say a word as he moved around the table. I held my breath. He barely touched me and jumped back, wild eyed. Why was this strange doctor freaking out when everyone else was just rolling their eyes at me and kicking me out of their offices? hmm? Hmmm??? So he says, “You need to go get a mammogram! Urgently!”
I don’t respond to his excited nature. I just slowly sit up, now its my turn to roll my eyes and I say quietly for the last time, “I want… a … biopsy.” He says ok. Wait, what did he say??? Ok, I’m deaf remember. I say, “Are you serious?!” I finally perk up. I grab his slip and run out of the office.
Surely it’s not cancer. They won’t call me. Gut needs to shut up. They called me. I screamed. I guess mere days after my 30th birthday I was allowed to have breast cancer after all. But unfortunately, it was stage III. Holy shit. Sorry for my swearing. Now I’m sad, now I’m mad, now… I fight! 30.
Me not normal? Pffffth. Unique. I love being unique. It has me on a unique and crazy adventure. Today I’m 32, living it up. My scars are only powerful lines that point to hope, faith, and love. They show me where my Pink sisters are, they show me that I’m more beautiful than I was before and that I’m no freak. They show me that cancer cannot triumph even the most road-weary. They show me that life is much deeper than that new car. Anyone who dares to love my broken ears, my 50 something odd inches of scars, is what this life is worth living and fighting for…
Kim lives in New York and works in animal care. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010, and shares some words with us about her life; from her experience in 1980s New York to her fiction writings and caring for her parents.
I’m a native New Yorker, born in 1965. 1980s NYC was my teacher, I learned everything I needed to know about strength and survival on the subways, squatting in abandoned buildings, and running the streets of Alphabet City in my teens. Punk Rock, and music in general, tamed most of the wild parts. Most. I followed some bands, started a band, had so many jobs in my 20s that I worked on the trading floor of The NYSE at the same time as I handed out flyers on roller skates in Midtown. By my 30’s I realized I was done with Corporate America, took a job in animal care and never looked back.
Around the same time, I tried my hand at some “alternative lesbian fan fiction” which to my surprise, snowballed into 6 published novels. (Best sellers, even!)
By 2000, my parents were in bad health, I moved in to care for them. My mom died shortly after, and my dad recovered from his stroke, then quadruple bypass, only to be diagnosed with cancer.
One day in 2010, while replacing a nipple ring, I came across a bump. Now, I had cancer too. As a primary care giver to my dad whose cancer was all consuming, I didn’t have time for my own. I had a double mastectomy, aggressive chemo, all while taking care of my dad, the apartment, my dogs and my job. I struggled hard through chemotherapy, it was literally killing me, and I was fighting harder than I ever have for anything I have ever fought for. I thought I was tough before, but you never know how strong you really are, until you are fighting for your life.
Now, my friends call me a hero. I’m not a hero; I just didn’t want to die. I’m 52, and a survivor, now; but I also have survivor’s guilt. I lost so much of my family, and so many loved ones to cancer, and I often have moments where I wonder why I survived and they didn’t? I guess there’s things I still have to do. I guess my story isn’t over.
All images © David Jay Photography
We have designed a special post double mastectomy compression bra with the hope of supporting and comforting women who have undergone a double mastectomy. Named after Stella’s mother, all proceeds from the Louise Listening bra in Flora White will benefit the Hello Beautiful Foundation, going towards their new London centre for women with breast cancer. We have also designed a special compression swim set in bright floral patterns.
This year, we have dedicated our ‘No Less A Woman’ campaign to Elaine, who bravely shared her story with us last year and sadly passed away in May 2017.