Thank you for the emails and messages since the surgery and the Oregonian’s article came out. I am 2 weeks past surgery now, but still recovering and have needed far more help than I anticipated. My older sister and mother have cared for me 24/7, and I am just beginning to do things for myself again though I can’t drive and still have drainage tubes in my sides. I am not really writing much at the moment. Sleeping, eating and taking pain pills is more my regiment.
Paige Stoyer photographed the pre-surgery chemo-girlfriends party at the Benson Hotel and was actually in the surgery room during the double mastectomy and reconstruction. I have not yet seen these images and will wait to view them until my next week. I will also share photos from the shoot four days post surgery with Fritz Liedtke, as well as the self portraits from after surgery once I’m recovered from the next surgery I’ll explain next.
The post-op appointment with my plastic surgeon went well. No problems. I’m healing well. Evidently my nipples look good on the outside as well as the outside and they were able to save them during surgery. This was very good news to me as I woke up looking somewhat more normal than I expected. The post-op appointment with my surgeon, however, was not quiet so good. Due to the location of the tumor, even though it was much smaller than before chemo and there was only cancer in 2 of the 8 lymph nodes removed, I need additional surgery this coming Weds to create a wider margin around where the tumor used to be. This is just to be sure we got everything. So there’s little time or energy to process where I’m at now before I have more surgery. I will wait until then to begin posting. Thank you for your thoughts and support. The outlook is very good and my hair is growing in the meantime!
Week 16. The Real Thing: Acupuncture. Shot Week 15
Since the beginning of chemotherapy I’ve been receiving weekly acupuncture through IEP (Immune Enhancement Program). They offer low cost traditional medicine and have a special program for people with cancer. I’ve also received Shiatsu (acupressure) and met with a naturopathic doctor there. In all honesty, I have no idea if it helps. Chemo make you sick. When you feel sick with new side effects all the time, how do you know if something has made you better or not? I feel sick, I go to acupuncture and feel somewhat better and relaxed during the treatment then I go home and feel sick again. I like thinking that I’m doing something proactive to help my body. I like thinking that the herbs and supplements make me stronger and ready to take the next rounds so I can get rid of cancer. In reality, I don’t know but I keep going.
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.
Week 16, Cancer Reflected. Photographed Week 12
I asked photographer Bill Purcell and makeup artist Lily Hutchins to collaborate on a session and left the concept completely open. Via email they both began down this path of the emotions of cancer and my feelings during chemotherapy written in red lipstick and shown on a mirror, as if I were in my dressing room staring them in the face. I was right on board with their ideas. They asked me to write down what it felt like, perhaps after each treatment or in stages. My writing was full of every emotion, many contradictory. For example, overwhelm and acceptance. Some expected, like “angry, worried, frustrated.” Some were perhaps not expected, but more relatable: “joyful, playful, interested.” Yet others were more unexpected and those were the words Bill wanted to go with. They were not what he thought he might feel if he had cancer and therefore more complex to understand. I liked that this deeply empathetic man wanted to go deeper into the nuances of emotions cancer has brought up for me.
The set was constructed in my studio, using the space like it’s never been used before. Both Bill and videographer Dan Sadowsky came in with props three hours prior to the shoot to set the stage and create the perfect lighting. A heavy desk and several lamps where brought up the red door freight elevator and rolled across the long wooden floors into the studio to design this set. Since Bill would be shooting into a mirror to get my reflection what was behind him mattered and would be in the shots. His positioning, to stay out of the image, as well as a second set and lighting behind him, was important. Technically, this was a difficult shoot. Bill’s forethought and preparation as well as the assistance of Dan, Lily and my mother, helped bring all the abstract details together.
Whereas many of the other Finding Beauty in Cancer shoots have been “pretty” fantasy style concepts, Bill wanted his shoot to be darker. I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of showing this side at first, but then realized that by being more vulnerable with all of my emotions someone else might be helped in their process or in understanding what a loved one is going through. Cancer has been a bit of all emotions for me. I don’t want to deny the fact that I feel afraid and in despair, yet I try not to stay in those places longer than I need to. I try to move through them to a place that is more beneficial to me. I want to be happy most of the time, but I feel all of it regardless of what I want. Knowing that I will transition from the darker emotions, that “this too shall pass,” helps me keep moving forward.
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)
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. 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Those shared moments of humor help you get through.
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.
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.
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.
It’s week 13, treatment 7, day 6. I wanted to go back and try to answer some of the bigger questions I had early on. I have 1 treatment and 3 weeks of chemo left. I can see the end, yet the pain keeps me shortsighted. Perspective shifts with pain I find. It’s a gorgeous day, however, and on this Sunday I got to both the gym and the park on my bike. If I don’t stop or look at my reflection I can almost forget I have cancer. I feel very fatigued but somehow strong at the same time.
This is what I wrote originally. See Week 6 – Chemotherapy side effects. “The questions I had, and some I still have, that others may share: What will chemo feel like? What are the side effects? Can I still work? Will I be throwing up all the time? Will I really lose my hair and when? What is “chemo-brain”? Can I have sex? Will I or (insert possibility of new boyfriend here) even want to? Will I have ‘moon face’? What happens to my skin and nails? Will my old fibromyalgia re-emerge? Will the chemo kill me? Will I wish I were dead instead of having it? Will it hurt? What else might happen? Will I need help? How much? Who will be there with me and who will not?”
“What will chemo feel like? It feels like a bomb hit me some days. It feels like something exploded in my body and can’t get out at times. It alters both mind and body with symptoms and fog. Other days it just feels like fatigue – operating my body at quarter energy. My spirit and clear mind come back during these days and I live life intensely. I’ve written much on chemo already so I’ll stop here.
What are the side effects? You can read the original post and updates for more gory details but basically I’m on the 16 week ACT program for breast cancer. I received treatment every two weeks. The side effects during the first 4 treatments of my A/C where different than they are now during the last 4 treatments of T. I can’t say which I prefer. Maybe the latter. They both suck. I advise avoiding them completely, if you can. With the first 4 treatments, the worst side effects were nausea, fatigue, some pain, chemo brain, mouth sores, hair loss… In that order of severity. For these past three T treatments the worst side effects are bone pain all over my body, hot flashes, fatigue and nausea. I hear more neuropathy in my hands and feet, as well as excessive fatigue, will increase with this third treatment. Yippee.
Can I still work? Not really. Very part time. I still have to work some, 1) for my sanity and 2) because I am self-employed and my sole support. No sick time, no disability insurance, no good to get sick my friend. I have a mortgage and studio to pay for in addition to all the medical bills. At first I tried to work most of the second week of chemo treatment but was completely overwhelmed by managing the details when I still had bad chemo brain. After crying with four clients in a row I had to stop. I now take one or two clients at the end of each two week treatment and focus all my energy on them and hope they buy a lot. That’s it. I don’t pressure myself to do more and I let it be. Whatever income I create will be enough until I can work PT or FT again. Now is not the time to work, although I feel the financial pressure. I’m living on savings, and have rented a room in my home as well as part of my studio. I’ll miss the holiday season, my busiest time of the year, which usually gets me though the winter. I’ll ask those clients to come after the New Year when the surgery is complete and I just have radiation to manage. Post holiday photographs will be the new thing this year. Spread the word, it’s all the rage.
Will I be throwing up all the time? No. Anti-nausea drugs are amazing. I’ve felt nauseous most of the time, but haven’t actually thrown up. It is better for me now during the T treatments than with the AC. This was one very welcome discovery!
Will I really lose my hair and when? Yep. Two weeks after my first treatment, like clockwork. My head, legs, underarms and yes, pubic, hair all gone. My eyebrows and lashes are barely holding on but I’ve heard that may be short lived with the T drug. Damn it, I thought I was going to get away with them! I “leak” now whenever the wind blows as there are so few lashes to stop the tears from overflowing. I’m happy to have had them as long as I have. Eyelashes are lovely. They will grow back quickly, however. I’m still pissed off that my brows are thinning. If they go I’ll start a riot! The bright side – I’m happy not to have to shave my legs and pits! My head grows stubble, which I shave every two weeks because I like the feeling. Nice! I hear it starts growing in as soon as chemo ends and grows back at about ½ inch per month. It’s going to be a while until it’s any sort of style, but I’m glad I wore it short for a week and liked how that looked. Can’t wait to get that sassy bob grown out!
What is chemo-brain? This is still hard to describe. It’s a fog. It’s like my mind working in slow motion. I can see the pieces, but I can’t put them together quickly. It’s like slogging through mud to get to the answer. I’ve found myself asking people to talk more slowly on the really bad days. I make lists to remember things and then forget to read the lists. Fortunately, this is not a side effect that is bad every day. It’s usually just the first few days after treatment and then it lessens. It is much less of a problem with the T portion of my treatment these last 3 sessions. I’m sharper now but dulled by more pain.
Can I have sex? Will I or (insert possibility of new boyfriend here) even want to? The one you’ve been waiting for. Well, the answer is I don’t really know. (Damn it! And only 3 weeks left to find out…) The 24-hour rendezvous man fell away the same week as my hair. Pity, I liked him. To my great surprise, others have emerged and I’ve even had 3 interesting dates with someone and put off the attention of others. Who meets people to date during chemo?! That’s nuts. I even shocked myself. It’s been good to rally my energy on a good day and enjoy company and dinner once in a while. My heart and my mind are slow to focus on a new romantic love and prospective relationship right now, however. Sex, for me, is connected to those things (usually, at least), and so while I’m sure the answer would have been ‘yes’ in the context of a relationship (the interest is still there on the good days), the truth is I just don’t know. Nothing rallies the mind and body like romance and I love the prospect. I’m so glad chemo is almost over!!
Will I have ‘moon face’? No. As far as I know this is caused by higher doses of steroid than what I was given.
What’s happens to my skin and nails? I heard horror stories before. My skin has become very dry, however, virgin coconut has been my favorite solution and cured the problem. I slather it on after every shower and then wear a hula skirt. I also really like CV Skinlabs and Violets are Blue products that are made specifically for cancer patients. Very excited about both of them. Overall my skin has done very well with a combination of these products and coconut oil. Radiation will be it’s own story. My sister says she has horse utter balm for me from the vet. My nails have been fine (and yes, I’ve had them done and they are sexy).
Will my old fibromyalgia re-emerge? No, thank god! However, the pain from the Nulasta shot that stimulates bone marrow does cause me pain that is as intense and does migrate like fibromyalgia. It’s bad and it, like fibromyalgia, is very difficult to tolerate. While the doctors ask me if I ‘ache,’ this is definitely pain not an ache. Maybe I have a different level of pain than most. Perhaps that is from having some form of fibromyalgia and nuerological pain issues still underlying everything. I do not usually experience fibromyalgia pain or symptoms now due to new medication. (Don’t even get me started on the idiotic argument that fibromyalgia may not be real. Anyone who has lived with it will tell you exactly where to put that ill-informed opinion. That can be filed with cancer cure diets consisting of pot and cantaloupe. I received both.) My chemo pain feels as bad as fibromyalgia, or the surprise may be that fibromyalgia feels as bad as chemo. The good news is that the pain does lessen and almost goes away before the subsequent treatment. I can deal with this. The drugs I’ve tried do take the edge off, but do not take the pain away. The pain has gotten worse with each treatment and this most recent #7 treatment has been very painful. During the first part of chemo I thought that overall it was still easier than 7 years of intense fibromyalgia. Now that the pain has started I find the two very similar, except I know it will go away once chemo ends, which makes chemo bearable.
Will the chemo kill me? Will I wish I were dead instead of having it? Although some days suck, chemo will not kill me, and I’m happy to be alive. My blood work is being managed and, although I am vulnerable, I am not in danger of the side effects of chemo taking me out. I can, however, imagine why people chose NOT to continue chemo sometimes. It’s overwhelming, exhausting and feels very out of control. Everyone in chemo makes their own choice. Many people are in chemo not to “cure cancer,” but to manage terminal cancer. I have a new understanding of what it means to choose not to have chemo. Where the side effects make the quality of life worse than simply living without it. I can imagine a time I would not want more. For now, I’m happy to do it and finish. It’s much better than the alternative, and I am fortunately enough to have the option.
Will it hurt? What else might happen? Yes, it hurts me, but not all of it. Receiving chemo itself does not hurt. Some of the side effects and the drug Nulasta do hurt. Almost anything else might happen and does. I’ve seen others experience a wide variety of complications, but have been fortunate to have followed a fairly predictable path.
Will I need help? How much? Yes, a lot some days. None other days. I need different amounts of help at different moments. It’s so hard to predict. From making food to making sure I take my millions of pills at specific hours. When the side effects set in I want to do neither. I like the comfort of having people around, and the company friends and family provide.
Who will be there with me and who will not?
To be written about later.
Week 13 – Henna Tattoo Shoot
Photographed Week 9 9/13/2013
This shoot was done on one of my “bad” weeks, meaning just a few days after chemo. I was exhausted during this shoot, but happy to be able to work with Owen and Wendy. We planned this shoot during a bad week because I wanted to henna tattoo my head for Portland Fashion Week and that fell on that weekend. The goal was to attend with part of the Kimberella team and my friend Tod Foulk, who was one of the founders. I only had enough energy for one afternoon show, but it was worth it. It was a curious two weeks while the head tattoo lasted. As Wendy said it would, the henna was a gateway to allow others to ask about my bald head and cancer. I had one woman run out after me in the bank and ask to look at it and take a photo. The Race for the Cure in Portland was the same weekend and many women in the Survivors tent where I sat having breakfast (and crying with overwhelm) talked with me, saying they wish they had done something like that.
Photographer Owen Carey has been in my life for 26 years, since I was 18 years old and a young model trying to pay for college. He was the first photographer I worked with in Portland when I moved here and the impression he made was huge. I remember his kindness and genuine interest. I never imagined I would someday also be a photographer. Nearly 10 years after that I was in the middle of a new endeavor as a professional musician and needed a photo for the cover of my 2nd CD. I again went to Owen for imagery. When, at 38 I went out on my own as a photographer, yet another life adventure, and contacted Owen, who has guided me as a mentor and friend since then. We now work in the same studio building and see one another often.
Email from Owen:
Just wanted to say thank you for putting your willingness, and your faith and trust in me, in all your strength, and in all your vulnerability.
Your quiet perseverance, beauty, intention and vision, looking cancer right in the eye, is inspirational. Thank you for showing me that elegance and spirit that is so Kimberli – so Y.O.U. It was good to get to “play” with you for an hour and make new discoveries together. To me, making art is all about “play” – and it is a process of discovery, so thank you for allowing me that gift.
I am honored to assist in this project – and would be happy to do it again as a means of supporting you throughout this process, as a healing, curative, spiritual, human endeavor, and to assist you in holding a mirror to the process of mastectomy and rebuilding and whatever comes next in the recovery process. May you live to be 100 and survive this cancer with many years of fulfillment yet to come. ( that’s not a death wish – “wishing you’d die at 100!” — hell I’ll be gone by then!) LOL.
So thank you.
It amazes and saddens me that someone with such beautiful lovely breasts, (and yes, they are from the pix I just saw on your blog) be accosted by this insidious disease… or anyone for that matter- female or male – lovely – or not so pretty. I have known so many who also have suffered in this way – yet this is the first opportunity that I have been given to engage in such an artful and supportive process. Most women tend to hide with cancer… and although our culture lends such importance to breasts, beauty – as you know, resides elsewhere, in the realm of the spirit. Superficial beauty is just that – superficial; so if you ever need a friend, a comrade photographer and co-conspirator in this fight with cancer, I am just upstairs and down the hall – and at your beck and call. who knows you might reconstruct the breasts to fill your clothes in an accustomed way – or keep the chest flat and have dragon tattoos made at the site of your surgery.
Beauty, as they say is in the eye of the beholder – and I might add in the spirit as well – and that eye and spirit are yours to behold a new and cancer free spirit called Kimberli. Let me be a photographic partner in the process.
(Joni made some great images of you – I’m jealous.)
Sending you more hugs – and a whole lot of L.O.V.E.!