Finding Beauty- Wigs shoot . Ongoing treatment & migraine

FUNDraiser set for Saturday. Nov., 15, 2014 7-10PM 1300 SE Grand Ave, Portland *Coava Coffee/Bamboo Revolution More info to follow.  See page.

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Preview from last night’s self portrait shoot. Blog post with more pics & the emotion behind releasing the wigs I wore during chemo coming soon. Though I look better & am happy to be alive, I am still dealing with some ongoing treatment and complications. (No medical advice here please.) 15 mo of treatment has become more than I was bargaining for. A party may be just what I need now in many respects! What do you think of wine and appetizer party in my studio (or elsewhere) with live music (hello talented friends) and a silent auction (ditto friends) to raise some funds? Or other ideas? If you want to help feel free to post or email me. Thank you so much for all the love and help you’ve already provided. I’m so grateful for my friends and family!!
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Wig release
Wig release

Surgery Day – Hospital Stay SHOOT

Time passes, though sometimes more slowly.  November 18, 2013, my surgery date, was nearly 5 months from the day I learned I had breast cancer, June 25, 2013.  The original shock and fear gave way to acceptance and a project to focus on finding beauty in life despite and within the hard days to come.  Tests, waiting, chemotherapy, side effects.  There were many hard days and the time dragged on.  During the month between my final chemo treatment and surgery day, many difficult decisions about what kind of surgery, reconstruction and then when to begin reconstructive surgery had to be made.  In the end, I decided on a bilateral mastectomy with left axillary node dissection.  I didn’t want to ever do this again.  I also chose reconstruction to start at the same time which made it became a more major surgery as tissue expanders were placed under the chest wall muscle.

OPERATION ROOM PHOTOS  We received special permission for Paige Stoyer to photograph my surgery in the operation room.  If you are interested (note they are very graphic) click link and enter password “surgery”  http://wp.me/p3Limh-iU

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Images below include the lovely nurse at St. Vincent’s Hospital preparing me for surgery, as well as the anesthesiologist who called me the night prior to surgery to review my drugs and assure me I would be sound asleep and not feel a thing until later.  I liked how the surgeon, Tammy De Le Melena, wrote “Yes” in my left breast.  I felt scared but very comfortable with my surgeons and glad to have my family close.  I also was ready to have the tumor and lymph nodes out so I could stop worrying.

Hospital Pre-Op
Hospital Pre-Op

Below are images with my mother, Helen Brown in the brown jacket.  The second image is with my sister, Paula Johnson, watching me put on my red lipstick for surgery.  In the background are my friends Lisa Helderop and Laura Klink.  The last image is with my birthmother Pat Nida.

Hospital Pre-Op with family
Hospital Pre-Op with family

I waved “Goodbye tumor” as they wheeled me away.  I remember being in the operating room where the operating room nurse had me sit up and threaded a pain pump into my back.  I remember him holding me tightly and wondering why.  The next thing I knew I was breathing deeply, the nurses were saying good job and I said “I’m having trouble breathing.”  Then I was out.

Operating Room
Operating Room

I don’t remember being in the recovery room except for thinking, “I’m glad the tumor is gone.”  I’m told my lipstick stayed perfectly intact.  I do remember being wheeled into my hospital room and the man pushing my gurney had trouble lowering it to my bed height.  The jostling was hurting me and I remember looking directly at him and saying, “Stop that.  I’ll walk.”  The friends and family who had waited during the 5-hour surgery and 2-hour recovery came into the room to say goodnight.  I was happy to see them all.  I was also hungry and pretty loopy from the anesthesia and pain meds.  A tall dark and handsome doctor walked into the room and I told him he was cute and could stay.  I spent one night in the hospital as that is what insurance covers and all I wanted to stay.  I got very little sleep with two nurses named Sarah coming into my room all night. I was near the elevators and it was noisy.  I wanted to be in my own bed.  I wasn’t released until about 5pm the next day once the plastic surgeon, Dr. Shannon O’Brien, came was sure my pain was under control. She loosened the wide ace bandage, which felt like it was strangling me and peeked underneath.  I looked with her and saw that I still had my nipples.  Oh happy day!  The nurses told my older sister and mother how to care for me and empty and measure the five drainage tubes that hung from my sides.

Hospital Post-Op
Hospital Post-Op

It never occurred to me that I would be told one week later, at the post-op appointment, that I would need another surgery the following week.  The pathology results were good (I’ll share the specifics later), but there was not enough margin taken around the tumor due to the location.  I’ll write another post about the 2nd surgery as well as how I felt physically and emotionally during the month that followed soon.  I’m still recovering, experiencing bad chest spasms from the expanders, taking 1/4 of my pain and full spasm meds.  I cannot drive or work yet.  I’ve also started to develop lymphedema in my left hand. This one really shocked  and upset me.  I’m frightened of it.  The insensitive physical therapist who evaluated me today and told me my lymphedema is permanent complained that HER job was difficult because she had to tell people that.  Instead of repeating that it’s permanent, it would have been much more useful to hear how I could deal with it.  I would have liked her to talk about how I am going to manage it.  How at just stage one others have been able to reverse or prevent progression.  Instead I was left feeling rather hopeless and cried my way home afterward.

I thought the weight of just having the cancer removed would make everything easier. It has but the recovery process is much more difficult than I expected.   Tomorrow I begin the inflation of my breast expanders that were placed under the chest muscles during surgery and will continue once a week until I start radiation.  Radiation doesn’t have to start until early Febrary now, which means I can do the expansion more slowly than twice a week. (My radiation oncologist reviewed the surgery pathology and now says I can begin radiation 10-12 weeks after the first surgery.  Originally it was estimated I would only have 6-7 weeks.)  I will also now have PT twice a week for the next several weeks.  I may try to find a new physical therapy groupo but the holidays are coming and I need treatment now. Just like before each chemo treatment, I do not feel ready for the expansion tomorrow. I don’t feel strong enough, recovered enough.  And yet, it is the next step (which we delayed last week due to the second surgery) and needs to happen.  So I step forward.

Update:  I had my first breast expansion today with Dr. O’Brien.  The “fill up” as I say or “top off” as my friend Laura calls it was interesting to watch. Saline was pumped into my breasts (there is a port beneath the skin that the doctor simply put the needle through) and, what do you know, my breasts got a little bigger.  I have small bumps now.  I even have a nipple that feels something.  Amazing!  She said this will help my chest spasms go away as it’s likely the folds in the expanders that are causing them.  I will have Paige take photos of the “fill up” at some point so others can see what it looks like, too.  It was only a bit painful when the needle entered.  Also, I contacted another physical therapist, asked Dr. O’Brien, and met with the lymphedema garment specialist.  All said that stage one lymphedema, like what is in my hand, can be reversed. Okay, let’s go with that and do whatever I need to do.

 

 

A Day in the Studio SHOOT – Work & breast cancer

Photography by Paige Stoyer.  Part of her Real Thing series following my treatment.  Photographed on Nov. 14, 2013.  4 days prior to surgery.  Post written Dec. 9, 2013

I love my photography studio.  I love the grain of the wood on the floors, the brick walls, the four huge windows that flood the room with morning light.  I love the old storage building that hosts 25 studios including mine, full of creative people, a leaky roof and a red freight elevator.  I love that the dogs who come to work with their owners always run up the stairwell and into my studio, the first one, during the summer when the doors are flung wide open to let in the draft cool flow through the space.  My work as a photographer, my 800 sq ft studio and the variety of who and what I get to photograph each week center me, ground me, make me feel connected to the community and myself.  It’s difficult to remove myself from my studio and work while I focus on healing.  Although I did work some during chemotherapy, maybe 1 or 2 clients at the end of every two week cycle, I was not in my studio on a regular basis.  I was simply not strong enough to work except on the very last few days of each cycle when the chemo side effects would fade.  It was almost impossible to predict when I would feel strong enough for clients and the few I did work with were really generous in working around my fatigue and occasional rescheduling.  I have not worked since this photo shoot over 3 weeks ago while I’ve been recovering from surgery.

This photo shoot was done during the one week I did work a full week.  I had 4 weeks to heal between my final chemo treatment before my surgery. I needed all 4 weeks, but by the last one I decided I also needed the sanity of my being in my studio and absolutely had to make some money.  I put on my lipstick, called back clients who had been waiting for me and put out my welcome mat.  This particular shoot was for Flowers in Flight, an amazing floral shop in downtown Portland.  I am fortunate enough to be doing their product photography for a brand new website and for 4 days my studio was full of fresh floral designs each morning.  I would shoot and edit, then Lily Hutchins would select her favorites, bring in a new cart full of designs and take back the previously photographed ones.  Over the past 8 years in business I have really become more of a portrait than product photographer.  However,  I love product as well and was so grateful to photograph flowers that stood still, took minimal lighting and did not need entertaining. Children and families, although great fun and wonderfully distracting (no time to think of yourself) are much more difficult to photograph than flowers.  Paige Stoyer followed me during one of these days.

Working in photography studio 3 weeks after chemo.
Working in photography studio 3 weeks after chemo.

 

Finances:  The following images show the other side of being self-employed and single during cancer.   While I have the ability to be flexible with my schedule there is no back up.  No disability pay or insurance.  No one to be me when I can’t work.  As a family photographer I make 1/2 of my income around the holiday season.  I’ve missed all of it this year and wonder what will get me through the slow months of winter and early spring.  My bookkeeper, Marian Lucas, happened to drop in to pick up the bills during the floral product shoot and Paige captured the thoughts written on my face.  Marian now does not only my studio bookkeeping, but also my home and medica,l which is a nightmare to organize and track as anyone going through major medical treatment knows.  I am fortunate to have had health insurance at the time of my diagnosis.  The bills currently come to over $100,000 and I’m not finished.  My out of pocket for this year is $5000.  My insurance will go away in 21 days, at the end of the year, and I still have no idea what my next coverage, some type of ObamaCare, will be as the website is down and it’s taking up to 45 days to process written applications.  The stress of seeing both my studio accounting as well as my medical bills shows in these images.  I feel like I’m always 2 seconds from tears when it comes to finances right now.  However, my first thought always has to be on healing.  I can only do so much to bring in money right now and it will somehow work itself out once I am working full-time again.  I try to believe this and repeat it to myself often.  I’m grateful I took the advice of money people and had backup savings to live on for a few months.  I’ve needed it all.

Meeting with bookkeeper 3 weeks after chemo.  Stress.
Meeting with bookkeeper 3 weeks after chemo. Stress.

 

The end of the day.  I’m tired, worried, happy, content….  So many things in one face and two photos.  It has now been three weeks since I’ve been able to work in my studio (I’m post surgery as I write this) and I miss my wood floors, brick walls and morning light.  It will be another few weeks before I am able to lift anything in order to work and move my lights around, although I hope to call on couple of friends to assist with some product work before then.  I needed a second surgery, which I will write about later, that has delayed my healing process some.  I don’t know how the reconstruction “inflation,” which begins tomorrow, or the radiation, which begins in January, will effect my ability to work.  I’m hopeful physical therapy, good food and some more rest will have me back in the studio playing and making a living again before too long.

 

Only week of studio work.  Feeling both happy about being in the studio and worried about the cancer, upcoming surgery and finances.
Only week of studio work. Feeling both happy about being in the studio and worried about the cancer, upcoming surgery and finances.

 

Week 16. Chemo Recovery SHOOT

The Real Thing – Chemo Recovery.  Shot week 12

Photographer:  Paige Stoyer

These photos show my real world most days during chemotherapy.  The recovery period lasted most of the two-week cycle until the next treatment.  I want to be active, go to work, have my life back.  However, the flood of drugs in my body and brain say otherwise.  I do what I can and what I need to do.  I lay on my couch, tell my cat she’s cute, eat so I can take more pills.  Pills, pills, pills.  Every few hours,  I eat so I can take more pills. Anti-nausea pills, herbal pills, pills for pain, pills to sleep…  I turn all the lights on so my house is bright even when I am not.  I avoid the stacks of paperwork on my kitchen table: bills, applications, copies of blood work and appointments.  I worry about the papers and bills I’m avoiding, but can’t wrap my chemo brain around them. I sit up and turn on my laptop to connect to friends on Facebook or think about the next photo shoot.  On the days when I am not too dizzy or nauseated I go outside, ride my bike around the neighborhood, feel the air on my face.  I think about how the context for exercise, as well as most other things in my life, has changed.  How little accomplishments mean something now.  I try not to measure this time by the same standards I had a few months ago.

Chemo Recovery
Chemo Recovery

 

Week 15 – Octopus SHOOT

Week 15 – The Octopus Shoot, Photographed Week 10. I’m under the sea, on the bottom of the ocean floor.  I’m resting there, face up, when the octopus comes out of his hole and wraps himself around my body placing a shell over my right breast.  I know it’s there as protection.  He’s protecting me….  (continued below)

See more below. Becca Blevins Photography, Matthew Mattison,  Kirstie Wright Makeup Artist.   See Behind the Scenes post for information on the artists.

Octopus Shoot Becca Blevins Matthew Wheeler

The water pulses against my body with the “bang, bang, bang” rhythm of sonar waves.  Sonar waves, if I’m the whale or fish, I imagine.  MRI noise if I’m in my own reality.  I’m actually lying in a great white metal machine.  One that, if I stay still for 45 minutes, will scan my body and tell me if the cancer has spread beyond my breast and lymph nodes.  This is the time before I started chemo, days when I wondered, as I still do some days now, whether the cancer has taken root elsewhere.  It’s nerve-wracking to wait.  Wait on test results for answers to your life.  Never mind it’s a weekend or holiday.  Nerve wracking to wait on the “bang, bang, bang” of the machine and so begin to imagine myself hearing what the fish and whales must hear under the sea.  I meditate on the rhythm and dream of what they must hear.  My body drives through the water and then finally settles upon the ocean floor where I meet my octopus.  He holds me safe and I wait with him until the banging stops, then slowly rise to the surface as he dissolves into my body.  I know immediately, this must be one of my Finding Beauty in Cancer Shoots.

Week 14- The Real Thing SHOOT. Photographer Paige Stoyer

Week 14- The Real Thing.  By international documentary photographer Paige Stoyer during Week 11 treatment 6.

I feel these images are fitting this week.  I’m at my lowest point both mentally and physically and, whereas most of the shoots have been fun, fantasy-style sessions, this shoot was documentary style showing a real day of chemo.  I currently feel the way I look in these images.  Concerned, exhausted and unsure what the future holds or if I’m strong enough to keep moving forward into more treatments that make me feel terrible.  I only have 3 weeks of chemo left, and yet it seems impossible to see the end when I’m in pain right now.  The thought of upcoming surgery, reconstruction and radiation feels like more than I can handle. Paige’s images capture some real emotions from both her and my perspective and I’m grateful to her for showing us this side of ‘beauty’ within fear and sadness.  Kimberli

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Writing & photography by Paige Stoyer. I was thrilled with the opportunity to work with my friend and fellow photographer Kimberli Ransom, to document the real day-to-day experience of her fight with breast cancer.

It is an act of trust to be allowed into these very real and difficult moments of her life and a show of her bravery to be willing to open up this way to the world.

I think we sometimes feel we have to protect people from the difficult stuff, the reality of battling cancer, of being sick.  We strive to put on a happy face for everyone, to show how tough we are.

But being strong doesn’t mean you don’t also feel vulnerable, scared and overwhelmed. The range of emotions that accompany a battle like this are staggering and unpredictable, changing from moment to moment.

I know this first hand from having walked this path with my mom during her battle with leukemia.  That has allowed me to have a connection with Kimberli about her journey, and though everyone experiences illness differently, to have at least some idea of what this is like for her.

Shooting this project has really taken me back to moments with my mom, being in the hospital with her for chemo and being in her house surrounded by the towering piles of medical paperwork that makes an already overwhelming situation even more daunting.

It is rewarding to know that while I will sometimes take a certain shot based on my own experiences, as we all do, when I show the image to Kimberli, it often resonates with her as well.  That’s why Kimberli’s project is so important, because so many cancer patients and survivors will be able to relate to her moments.

Like the feeling of walking down those many cold and sterile hallways on your way to your next treatment or appointment.

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I took the shot below because it reminded me of the feeling of being in the hospital for hours and days on end, where your life has largely come to a grinding halt and most things you do now revolve around this battle you are in.  Your world looks completely different now, but outside things go on as usual, the drumbeat of day-to-day life.  I distinctly remember during my Mom’s illness and before I went in for a surgery myself for a brain aneurysm a few years ago, looking out the window and feeling a disconnect from the world that was moving along outside.  Realizing that everyone else was going about their life as they always had, but you were inside this hospital, with everything riding on this surgery or this treatment.  We all go about our lives as if we are invincible and you just never know when your life will change in a moment.

The flip side to that is that when you come out the other side and are able to go on with your life, you will probably never take the day-to-day routine for granted in the same way again.

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This photo is about the way you look at each treatment and the people who are caring for you.  You wonder will this drug do the trick, is this the one that is going help me win this war?  And how is it going to make me feel, what will my body do with this drug in it, will I have a bad reaction to it?  You look to treatments with such hope and dread all at the same time.

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You develop special relationships with the people who administer the drugs and help you navigate the medical maze, and your doctors who see you week in and week out, because you literally are putting your life in their hands.

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Those shared moments of humor help you get through.

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This one speaks to me about Kimberli and who she is.  At the end of the day here she is looking right at us, showing us her both her strength and vulnerability and that she doesn’t intend to hide away but is facing this head on and asking us to come along on the journey with her.

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As an artist I suppose there is a willingness and even a need, to explore these difficult and complicated aspects of our lives and our experiences, for Kimberli and I this is an opportunity to do this together.

 

I hope in our collaboration I am able to capture some moments that will help her to tell her story.

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Self Portrait – Weeks 12 & 13

10/15/13  I’m surprised that my body has not changed much over the past several weeks.  My weight is remaining constant now and, for all the hell my body feels like it’s going through, it’s not changing on the outside.  Odd to me.

Self Portrait Wk 13
Self Portrait Wk 13
SelfPortraitWk12
SelfPortraitWk12