By Sondria Browne
At the age of 46, I was diagnosed with stage two/grade three multifocal, invasive lobular and ductal breast cancer. I had found the lump myself after a year of constant infected cysts in my breast. I had been told I had very dense breasts, which is part of the reason the cancer was not visible on a mammogram. I had it confirmed by biopsy and had a right mastectomy followed by four rounds of chemotherapy. Six months later, I chose to have my left breast removed and began reconstruction.
I recently finished five years of tamoxifen and chose not to continue for another five years, with the support of my team at the cancer clinic, when I started to have issues from side effects from the drug.
I had lost my breasts but had gained perspective, or at least a glimpse of what was missing in my life before the clarity of cancer entered my world. The effects of this experience were much deeper than the six-inch scar across my chest. Perspective was gifted to me in the form of a devastating diagnosis.
I found the need, like many others, to change my life and to make a difference in the world from my experience. The universe was ready and willing to respond to me if I so desired. I had started writing a blog called “The Rising.” Writing my thoughts and fears helped me to begin to heal. It also helped those around me understand what I was going through.
When I was first diagnosed, I wondered if I could make sense of all this. My reflection forever changed. Would I be able to cope with my new body? Cancer scars run deep and far beyond what the written word can completely express. How do I redefine the changes in myself to reflect my beauty as it remained?
Self-acceptance was my goal. I found it in the photos of women who chose to show their story through photography that I had seen on the Internet. I was beyond words as I looked at the images and I related and I thought, “That is me." They expressed how I felt but could not articulate to anyone, not even in my blog. Through the art of photography, a picture needs no words for true understanding of the image that is before us. The reality of the photos reflected a raw honesty of what the journey of breast cancer is like.
I then was inspired to take my picture to tell my story. I teamed up with a wonderful photographer and spirit, Malin Enstrom. I found her pictures captured moments artfully frozen in time, telling a story only a photograph can tell.
Malin and I finally took the pictures on a beautiful summer day. I felt vulnerable that day as we shot pictures in my backyard but also relieved I did it. She showed me the pictures and I sat and cried as the impact of my reflection reminded me of my journey and the healing that had to occur.
In that moment, I realized the healing that had already happened by choosing to have my photo taken. In the midst of my momentary sadness, I saw strength, acceptance, and resilience looking back at me. I felt empowered as I embraced my new self-scars and all.
I posted the pictures on my blog and received many positive responses from people, which is when Malin and I decided that we would ask other women if they would like to have their pictures taken. We wanted other women in St. John’s, Newfoundland to experience what I had and to help us show people the story of breast cancer in a raw and honest way.
The women heard about what we were doing and came to us and asked to be part of the project we called “One out of Nine,” the statistic for women in Canada diagnosed with breast cancer. We took their pictures in places where they were comfortable and that had meaning to them. We were fortunate to photograph many women around the Avalon Peninsula in the beautiful rustic backdrop that is our province.
In total, 13 women are part of the art installation. There are close to 30 large-scale portraits of the women and 13 close-up photos of the women as well. The women ranged in age at the time from 31 to 82 and all had a different diagnosis of breast cancer, showing the diversity in the disease and treatment.
We were fortunate to gain the support of the Dr. H. Bliss Murphy Cancer Care Foundation here in Newfoundland. This enabled us to hang the exhibit initially in 2013 and since then we have toured the exhibit across Newfoundland and Labrador. The exhibit was well-received and we have hopes of hanging it again in the future.
This art exhibit has changed my life and helped me heal in ways I could never imagine. I was never grateful for having cancer but I appreciate the fact that out of something terrible came a sense of purpose and giving back. I was getting on with my life and, with my partner, Malin, making a difference in the lives of others.
Each time we showed the exhibit across Newfoundland, I felt a sense of pride as we hung each of Malin’s pictures. She captured the women beautifully, telling their stories in each frame without a single word spoken.