WARNING: Some of these images contain partial nudity as it deals with breast cancer (NSFW).
“Beth’s Journey” is the culmination of three shoots over two years, covering the complex experience of breast cancer for Beth.
Beth contacted me in late August 2015, weeks after discovering that she had cancer—bilateral, concentric, invasive mixed mammary carcinoma to be exact. Her medical team had recommended a double mastectomy, which was scheduled for September 15. She wanted me to create photographs as keepsakes for her daughter, who was about to turn twelve. Beth was confident that she would beat the cancer, but she wanted her daughter to remember what she looked like before the surgery. During our initial meeting, I proposed three photo sessions: one just prior to the surgery, one immediately after, and one at least a year after surgery. We both wanted to create something that reached beyond Beth’s initial need to document herself for posterity. We then spoke to breast cancer survivors and discovered that there is little post-operative support for women who have undergone mastectomies. We hoped that these photographs and the accompanying dialogue would serve as a resource to better understand the experience.
I was honored to be included in such an intimate, personal exploration, and moved to have received her trust with something so important and full of unknowns. I was also struck with Beth’s matter-of-factness about the situation. My impression was of someone very comfortable in her own skin, powerful, confident, and willing to explore and take chances. With this said, she did feel a certain amount of conflict about the attention she might receive and the notion of vanity that could be construed from such a project.
“Cancer is quiet; it sneaks up in the night.
In hindsight, there were signs. My breasts tingled. In May, the right nipple was inverted. No lumps, no pain. I just figured I was getting old. In July, I was sitting with my husband and daughter watching a movie when a sharp pain in my right breast screamed at me: “Hey!” I reached to rub it and felt a lump the size of a halved peach. I stood up, made an excuse to go back home to get something. I sped home and darted into the powder room. Sitting on the toilet, I slowly ran my fingers around the lump and wept.
No one can explain how I got the cancer. I am young, and initially the doctors thought it was probably genetic. Sure, there were things that may have helped it thrive. My work environment [in manufacturing] was toxic. I’d smoked occasionally since I was seven, drank occasionally since I was thirteen. I ate sugar, milk, meat, and, heaven forbid, BBQ. But I’d also done things that were supposed to offer me protection. I ate onions, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, tubs of colorful salad with rice vinegar. I tried keeping my weight in check (with little success)…
After the diagnosis, I quit smoking and drinking (never did much of either) and changed my attitude. I took more naps, went to bed early, ate better, and surrounded myself with friends and family. I prepped my home, body, and mind for my bilateral mastectomy with reconstructive fat transfer.”
September 10, 2015, Five Days Prior to Surgery
Our first day of shooting took place in the studio. Beth was at once playful, in control, and open to my direction, despite it not making sense to her at the time. I work intuitively, trying not to think too much about things while shooting. Beth never hesitated to collaborate and to bring her own ideas to the images.
In the end, we agreed to no cosmetic retouching. She would be facing the world with her reality, the way she is, with the heart and the guts to do this.
September 20, 2015, One Day after Release from Hospital
The second photo shoot took place less than a week after her double mastectomy, for which they also removed fat from her abdomen to help reshape her breasts. At her house, still strung with decorations from her welcome-home party, Beth was caught up in the mental and emotional process of her recovery. She wanted to show an unfiltered documentation of her state. We explored and captured the wide range of emotions she was experiencing.
“The hospital was crazy in a way.
Me, cursing like a sailor at the incompetent male nurse stabbing at me to insert the IV. Afterwards, me, high on morphine and anesthesia insisting that everyone get a good close look at my newly butchered boobs. A few days later, when I finally saw them in the bathroom mirror, I quit flashing everyone.”
“I had the surgery on September 15th and was home on the 19th. Dave came to my house the following day. I was in a daze. I had drainage tubes coming out of me. I was still on morphine, and everything was in slow motion. My movements were slow, my pain was dull, my mind was relaxed. I was thankful that I made it out alive and was in good spirits.”
“I was still struggling with my decision [to have a reconstructive fat transfer]. I wondered how liberating it might be to have a flat, skinny chest. I prayed that the swelling would go down, down, down, and considered a breast reduction to take away the metaphorical burden.
But I didn’t want the photos to be about my breasts. I wanted them to capture my heart and my strength, as well as my fear. Out of adversity, there is great beauty. Great hope. Great strength. Photography had captured the cancer, in all its ugliness and sneakiness, and exposed it to the light. I wanted these images to help support others affected by it.”
October 1, 2017, Two Years after Surgery
Although Beth and I had stayed in communication over the past two years, I was surprised and moved by how much I felt like I knew her when I came to scout out her new home. The connection was one of an old and deep friendship as opposed to someone I had simply photographed a few times. Her commitment to the project, through open communications and fearless collaboration, is a rare experience.
I asked many questions, as I did before the prior shoots, but the questions were more targeted now. Drawing from her answers, I wanted to depict the joy, relief, balance, and optimism she expressed. But this was no “Disney” ending; she is not “cured” and will need to continue to monitor her health for the possibility of relapse. Fear and anxiety are still present. Her relationship with her immediate family was complex as well, but their support and love were paramount.
Shooting the third day was quite different, as I had the earlier images to consider. I wanted the palette to be consistent, but also to differ between days. I wanted to show the changes she made from before and after, such as the warmth, color, and decoration of her new home—a stark contrast to the old one.
I would love to see this project serve a greater audience, to create more understanding around the journey and to help people with breast cancer or any serious illness know better what to expect and how to navigate such a complex and fearful event. Beth’s transformation to a life she loves more and her strikingly positive outlook were unexpected results.
“Is it fair to say that breast cancer was one of the best things to happen to me?”
“Aside from two months of sheer hell, confusion, pain, and being at my absolute most desperate from a health standpoint, I can honestly say I’ve never felt better and more thankful for what I have accomplished.”
“Last year, I was still healing mentally, physically, and emotionally. I had a few bumps in the road trying to get back on my feet and back to work. Now, two years later, things have worked out for the better in nearly every aspect of my life. I have a new home, a good job, a good school for our daughter, a closer relationship with my husband. Hopefully, I have been a source of inspiration to my friends and extended family. I feel as if I have arrived. The journey doesn’t end here, but I have climbed a huge mountain with a caravan of assistance, support, love, and laughter.”
See more at davemoser.com/Projects/bethsjourney.