Stories from cancer survivors

As I was photographing survivors there was so much to tell. I asked them each to write some thoughts, feelings, suggestions, or what ever they wished to share.
To see more images I was inspired to create for the Portraits and Stories Displays you can click here.

Here is what they have to share:

Rosemary-umbrella The cancer diagnosis caused my world to spin in the opposite direction. I was a teacher for over 30 years. I was accustomed to being energetic, independent, and of course, in control. Suddenly, I was not in control; instead of giving help and support, I was accepting it. One night I was an active, strong and healthy tango dancer, the next I was a fatigued cancer patient who could not find the energy to put on my heels.

The next year my life revolved around taking care of myself. Try as I might, I could not resist the lure of the information and research available on the Internet.

Although there was no evidence of cancer outside my breast or in my nodes, the doctors recommended chemotherapy following the surgery. Again, I was absolutely terrified but I felt taking the doctor’s suggestion was the right thing for me. Six months of hard chemo passed; the side effects were unpleasant, but not nearly as bad as I had imagined.

I suppose it is natural to take stock of the past when the future is so seriously threatened. Strange as it may sound, I feel like one very lucky woman: the cancer was discovered on a mammogram while in stage 1 before it had spread; I was blessed with a network of family and friends to care for me; I had access to the very finest doctors and medical team available anywhere. I know that there is a possibility of a recurrence, life is uncertain and fragile for all of us, but I also know (if we ask) that God will always be with us.

In our society, it is easy go through the life rushing to get things done. Cancer is a reminder to live each day fully; to seize the opportunity to express love and appreciation to those we care about, to take the time to stop and notice little things that can make life so enjoyable, to help others and to remember to be thankful for the many blessings we have.

Rosemary from Iowa, Survivor July 2008

In 1995 I was diagnosed the first time with breast cancer after my annual mammogram. I had a feeling that it was cancer when the x-ray department called me back to have more pictures taken. I remember sobbing in my surgeon’s arms. What a wonderful man he was!! He scheduled me for surgery within days, stating it was an aggressive cancer but it was caught early. After the initial sobbing break down, I went into a fighting mode. My surgeon said we would lick this cancer and I believed him. In preparation for surgery, I did all sorts of positive activities: prayer, exercise, good food, positive visualizations, etc.

The day of surgery I took my usual early morning walk. It was a gray day. No sun but….I looked over my shoulder and there was a rainbow in the sky. How could that be? I knew it was a divine sign from God that everything would be OK. I felt very blessed.

I had a mastectomy of my left breast. I chose not to have reconstructive surgery. My feeling was that (1) I wanted to make sure I was cancer free before doing anything and (2)( more important to me) I did not want more cutting on my body nor did I want any foreign substance in my body.

Fortunately for me, I did not have to go through radiation or chemo at that time. I adjusted to being lopsided for 10 years. That was probably the hardest process for me.

My husband was wonderful. He accepted me lopsided or not. I was still very sexually appealing to him. He stated that he did not want me to go through any more surgery or pain and I knew he meant it. I was the one who had trouble accepting my appearance. But over time I came to terms with my lopsidedness.

One thing that helped me accept my lopsidedness was a poster I saw. When I was ready to be fitted for my prosthesis, I visited a lovely lady’s lingerie shop. In the fitting room there was a large poster of a beautiful young lady who had one breast removed. I looked at that poster and said “Wow, she is pretty, happy, and she only has one breast.” If she is so “together” with all this then I can be also. And that is why I am part of this special project. I am happy, healthy, and (as my husband says) attractive and I don’t have any breasts. I hope I can give some hope to someone else who is in the same situation.

In 2005 I felt a lump in my remaining breast. At first it was diagnosed as a cyst. I cried out to the Lord praying that it wasn’t cancer. He gave me six months of reprieve knowing that I was not ready to deal with the challenge. Unfortunately it was cancer. It was a totally different kind than what I had before. It too was caught early thank goodness. (Those regular checkups are so important. I always have some trepidation, afraid something will be found but…the alternative is worse by just ignoring your health.)

I chose to have another mastectomy to make sure that all of the tissue was gone although the surgeon got it all in the biopsy. This time I did have to have chemo. I gained a new appreciation for all those individuals who have had to experience the effects of these dramatic treatments. It’s certainly not pleasant but we get through it. I spent weeks on my sofa in front of the TV. Getting up in the morning was difficult for me due to nausea.

My nurturing food that I could handle was hot instant potatoes. My dear husband would get up first thing in the morning and whip up those instant potatoes with melted butter. I would eat that in bed before I could get up on my feet.

The stacks of cards I received really helped me get through the day. Friends stopping by bring food, news, smiles and laughs. That really helped.

For my third chemo treatment my daughter, daughter-in-law, and my nine month year old granddaughter arrived. They stayed for the week cooking, cleaning, walking with me, and just entertaining me. It was such a shot in the arm.

Although I have been through this difficult experience I am so happy to be alive…flat chested and all.

I discovered that even small breasts weigh a pound each. Now when I get home I feel so much more comfortable without breasts so I whip off those two pounds and that irritating bra. It’s sooo much more comfortable.

And as I said I am so grateful to be alive. Five more grandchildren have arrived, I started my own Geriatric Care Management practice, and my husband and I continue to have a joyful life together.

Chris from Iowa, Survivor 1995 and 2005

Karen-SmileFlowers After finding out that I had stage 3 breast cancer that was an aggressive tubular cancer and the mass was large, my mind flew into a dark deep tunnel and I felt completely alone. No one else was there, and no one else could help me. My control was gone¸ My God had disappeared and my family didn’t know what to do to help me. After days of seeing different doctors, radiation and chemotherapy specialists, the matter only worsened. A foreign language was spoken and I didn’t understand.

At my darkest time, I realized that I had to wake up to the reality that yes, I did have breast cancer. I had to accept that fact and although I couldn’t control it physically, I could educate myself about the treatments offered. I could learn more about breast cancer itself and most of all, get rid of the helpless feeling that I had growing inside me. Learning about the new life path I had to travel was very painful and frightening. The wealth of information sometimes sent me reeling. But at the end (or beginning ?) of my self-education into breast cancer, I had knowledge. If I questioned anything, anything at all, I would ask my health professional for clarification.

So, you see, even at my “dark tunnel” time, I learned that I could persevere, I took charge and overcame a lot of my fear. God hadn’t forsaken me, no, he was guiding me. You have probably all heard this poem, “Footprints in the Sand” written by Mary Stevenson. A poem I go to many times.

I had a funny (or maybe I should call it phenomenal experience when I went in to surgery. One of the nurses asked, would I mind if a priest and a nun go into surgery with me. They wanted to follow my surgery and stay at the hospital to try to better understand what women actually went through while having a mastectomy. They also wanted to be more knowledgeable about breast cancer. I am not Catholic, but flashing through my mind was how great would this be, to have two spiritual leaders close to me in surgery? Thank you God! Really, it still gives me shivers to think about it. They did just that, with a quiet prayer before I entered surgery and another when I left the hospital. Quite truthfully from that time on I had a mental strength that I myself could not believe I could ever possess.

I became a volunteer for Reach to Recovery as soon as possible on my “survivor” road. I was blessed with a wonderful Reach to Recovery visitor. She came to my hospital room and shared a bit of her journey, brought me some most helpful goodies regarding my recovery time. But, she mostly listened and advised when it appropriate for her to do so. I knew this was something I wanted to do down the survivor road. To help others walking this same difficult path. This was the time that I realized the experience that I was going through was not just about me. It involves all those who have been singled out to go down the breast cancer road. I owe all of you wonderful women that may experience breast cancer to let you know my story and how through all the bad moments, I am a better person because of it.

Have you heard of Lymphodema? This is very important information that I want to share with you: lymphedema refers to swelling that occurs most often in your arms or legs. It may affect just one arm or leg, but sometimes lymphedema can involve both arms or both legs.

The swelling occurs when a blockage in your lymphatic system prevents the lymph fluid in your arm or leg from draining adequately. As the fluid accumulates, the swelling continues.

No cure for lymphedema exists. But lymphedema can be controlled. Controlling lymphedema involves diligent care of your affected limb. I have a mild case of lymphedema and wear a sleeve to keep the swelling down. I am lucky as I do not have a severe case, to me it’s just a nuisance, but it can be severe and you owe it to yourself to know as much about as possible. I have included a couple of links below, you will find much information on the web.

Last but not least, I am a 12 year survivor!!


Mercy Hospital, Cedar Rapids IA, Breast & Bone Health
St. Luke’s Hospital, Breast & Bone Care
Susan G. Komen for the Cure
UI Breast Health, Iowa City IA, Breast Cancer
Mercy Hospital, Cedar Rapids IA, Lymphodema
Mayo Clinic, Rochester MN, Lymphodema
P&S-Barb-thumbnailWhat major thing did I learn about myself: Since my diagnosis I have done a lot of research and reading about cancer in general because I believe there is power in knowledge. Many women who have written books reference their epiphany or life altering event. I’m still waiting for some indicator of the purpose of this diagnosis I was given although it is slowly emerging.

I consider myself to be an independent person and I think those who know me well, would agree with the description. It was very difficult for me then, to let people know when I needed something or to admit I even needed anything.

It was very humbling for me to realize that not only was it okay to need others, it actually helped my family and friends to know they were needed and that they could do something concrete that would help me. Needing others isn’t a weakness, it is truly a blessing that binds us closer to one another. It is just one of many gifts I have been given on this journey.

Barb from Iowa, Survivor October 2008

P&S-Stacey&Angel Little Angel “My niece Kelsey, calls herself my personal assistant, I call her my angel,” Stacey wrote. Kelsey has been to all of Stacey’s appointments and treatments.

“When you feel the urge to dance, DO IT. When you find the will to sing, SING LOUDLY. When you catch a glimpse of glory, stand in awe as the angels do.”–Anonymous

Kelsey Smart from The Art of Smart did complimentary makeup and hair for these ladies. Learn more about Kelsey at

Master Photographer Barb Gordon, www.GordonPhotography.Biz

Blog-BB-walk-300x200What surprised me most about this simple image was the unexpected emotional response I had to it.

I wanted to do a Christmas card in 2007, in a new style that I wanted to offer at my photography studio. So I asked Images by Laura to come out to our farm and photograph us in the snow. It even snowed real nice for us too.

This image represents my husband as my best friend, patient, consistent, and always by my side.

At one point I was disappointed that he didn’t treat me any differently than before the diagnosis. I guess I thought I deserved sympathy or something. But in the long run what I appreciated the most about him was that he was exactly the same everyday giving me stabiltiy and a rock to lean on.

By appointment only:

Gordon Photography & Gallery, Inc.
at Lost Creek Farm


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