If dealing with COVID and its ongoing fallout hasn’t been confounding enough, consider the added shock of just learning you have the Big C, and that it’s breast cancer.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death, behind heart disease, among all females, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Two local women diagnosed with breast cancer in the last year have undergone enough medical treatment for a lifetime. Now they're getting the royal treatment and will appear in a bound photo book starring them and published for them — a move to help them rebuild their confidence and support other cancer survivors, too.
Their ordeals have taken a toll, but they're hopeful the worst is past. Each jumped at the chance to share their journeys, seeing it as a way to help ease the minds of others waiting anxiously for mammogram results, those recently diagnosed and others who someday may be.
Advancements in treatment and what science theorizes may be due to cutbacks in use of hormone replacement therapy are making a difference. Vigilant screening and early detection are helping more women survive it.
Still, this year, roughly one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer, according to the non-profit breastcancer.org.
These local women have emerged from surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Also hair loss, weight-gain and wretched nausea, and are eager to resume normal lives.
Whatever new norm COVID brings, for some, it may have nothing on Big C’s lasting effects.
It's their time
Entering their next phase of recovery under medical direction, and fewer lonely trips into medical facilities for updates — COVID restrictions have prevented anyone from accompanying them — they got an unexpected reason to celebrate themselves and a mondo mood boost.
After hearing about a unique fortitude-bolstering project, Tracey McKinley, office manager at Green Valley Arizona Oncology, called the two patients there to inform them about a boudoir photography project being offered gratis by the photographer. Her mission is to produce a personal book of alluring images to help breast-cancer survivors “find their way back to beauty and sexy” after losing body parts, hair, health, vigor and fitness as they focus on survival.
“If there is no way back to the Before Times, at least there is a way to help accept and embrace the New Normal,” said Jana Suchy, the Tucson-area photographer.
Both cancer survivors – Sofia Ruiz of Sahuarita and Mikel Moore of Tubac — were enthused with the idea and contacted Suchy. She sat down with them to outline the production process, calm any nerves they might have, and scope out their color, clothing and theme preferences. They ended up booking an all-day session of staging, costume changes and picture-shooting.
One of their better days in a while, both of the survivors said.
The setting was a lovely Tubac residence surrounded by breathtaking desert scenery. Suchy arrived with a van full of equipment, props and a load of leather, lace, fringe, bubbles, baubles, feathers and the piece de resistance – stiletto heels in all the right sizes. Hair, makeup and nails also played a part.
A girls-day-out made to order. What woman wouldn’t dream of it after months isolated at home, under the weather and facing unfathomable challenges daily? Let the pampering begin.
Life was good
In July 2020, Ruiz was a 44 year old with a full life, fantastic health and no family history of breast cancer; she didn’t smoke or drink and had a job she loved.
Then one day she discovered a lump in her left breast, a false alarm. It turned out to be a simple cyst that quickly disappeared, just like her doctor said. But a few months later, a lump appeared in the other breast, this one cancerous.
Already beside herself awaiting the prognosis, she felt more anguish yet from TV reports of COVID reaching the world with force and delaying her exam slightly, she said.
Days after her echo-sonogram (high-frequency sound waves used to produce images), she was summoned by the doctor.
“I was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer,” an aggressive form, she said.
There she was, without extended family since she, her husband and youngest daughter had moved back to Sahuarita a few years back after living in Spain while their oldest daughter finished college here.
“I sat in shock with little knowledge of this horrible reality,” she said. ”With half my family in Ecuador and the other in Spain, I felt a little unprotected and alone.”
Immediate family buoyed her positivity along with supportive, communicative medical staff who “became like family,” she said.
“I had to keep going ... there was no other option.”
Co-workers, clients and other sympathetic acquaintances offered kind words and gestures. One organized a walk to one of her favorite places to pray for her health, all more meaningful while she experienced myriad emotions and fear as she realized that, due to her weakened immune system, COVID could kill her.
With all that support, “I was grateful to receive very good advice from women who had gone through this process, which made me feel less alone.”
Following chemotherapy, she underwent exploratory surgery. No cancer cells were found.
That news "made me feel like I was born all over again,” she said. Next came radiation, then maintenance meds, expected to finish soon. Quarterly checks with her oncologist will follow.
She recalled the day the oncology office called about the photo opportunity.
“I loved knowing I could do something for other women with breast cancer,” she said. “The experience was very charming, it made me a stronger and safer woman after cancer and that life has given me another chance.”
She hopes her story will help others realize the importance of medical checks and self-exams, and credits self-discipline for saving her life.
“After the long process of cancer treatment, this project was an incentive, something that heals the soul. Jana is a professional and I loved the end result.”
Facing it logically
Moore, her new friend and sister cancer survivor, had a slightly different path to the boudoir shoot, but an outcome just as profound.
Like Ruiz, she relocated here from out of state. Other than an aunt in Phoenix, most of her family is in Michigan, including a step-daughter and new grandson.
“I have great 'breasties,' friends also going through or have gone through breast cancer,” she said.
She talks with her mom almost daily, and her best friend let Moore move in after she was diagnosed with breast cancer (on her birthday last year, of all days) and “has been critical to my ability to get through treatment,” taking her to appointments and video-calling in to key doctor visits, Moore said.
Also like Ruiz, she had no known family history of cancer, and faced the situation logically, “fairly matter of fact,” she said.
Previously, she’d been working long hours. Except for morning visits to the gym, where she was preparing for a heavy-lifting competition, “I was a slave to my job,” Moore said.
She initially moved to Arizona nine years ago while employed by a manufacturing facility in Michigan that transferred a bunch of material to be built in Nogales, Sonora. She was appointed materials manager to oversee the plant.
“When that job was done I was so in love with the area I couldn’t leave,” she said. Until her diagnosis, she was tending bar. As she was getting in shape for competition, the pandemic struck. Then, for her, cancer.
“I had a lump that I ignored for the better part of a year,” she said. Two doctors told her it was probably a fibroadenoma (treatable, noncancerous lumps typically occurring in women between ages 15 and 35; Moore is 33). She was advised to get imaging.
“Back to that ‘I was a slave for my job’ part," she said. "I couldn’t take time off to get it imaged, mainly due to myself not wanting to take time off, and didn’t have insurance, so I let it go for way too long.”
It wasn’t until COVID restrictions closed bars that she got it imaged.
“It had gotten so big that I had to move my breast while lifting at the gym. It hurt so bad all the time by the time I did anything about it.”
Doctors soon discovered metastasis in her liver and prescribed a course of doxorubicin, an anthracycline known as “red devil” for its color and most concerning side-effect, cardiac toxicity. She also got a blast of radiation beads into her tumors via femoral artery.
Other chemo and treatments may be needed later, she said. Heart-rending just thinking about it, but Moore said she trusts the doctors and is grateful for their care.
Two surgeries claimed about half her right breast; the initial tumor removed about 4x3 centimeters. A similar amount was taken a second time to get clear margins. Most recently, she’s been taking oral chemo twice daily.
“It’s been hard at times but I have definitely learned how strong I am physically and emotionally, Moore said.
“Between losing my hair and gaining weight I have never felt less like a woman.”
Muscle tone also went by the wayside due to being homebound for months.
“The worst days kept me in bed, sometimes multiple days at a time. I couldn’t eat without getting sick; even the smell of food made me sick.”
Her friend Sue made sure she always had water and cared for Moore’s animals while she healed.
“She’s a real godsend,” Moore said. Compassion from Sue and others has helped her weather reactions to her diagnosis.
“I had several people offer their internet doctor information, some friends that checked in on me daily, and others that couldn’t handle talking to me anymore because they didn’t know what to say. Seeing all three types of people has been very eye-opening.
“Hardest was going into treatment alone,” she said. “It made it really difficult to retain all the information that you were getting during appointments.”
Several friends, other family and especially her grandson and step-daughter have been crucial to her recovery.
“Knowing they are rooting for me and that they need me to be healthy always helped me push forward and keep my chin up.”
She’s been in remission for a year.
“I’m already back to the gym have been going steadily again for the last few weeks and feeling great… sore, but great! It’s definitely one of my Zen places.”
She's also studying to be an electrician at Pima Community College.
“I am super excited to have a career again,” she said.
An idea takes root
Suchy fell into boudoir work in 2010, when a friend asked if she’d take photos of his wife in this way, she said.
“I didn’t even know boudoir was a thing,” but clients liked her work and encouraged her to pursue a career in it.
“A year later, I did.”
She’s shot clients in six states since her pilot project in Montana, although outside of the cancer-survivor realm.
“I don’t recall that I knew any survivors personally at the time I created Pink-Ribbon Boudoir, but now it’s hard to find anyone who hasn’t been somehow touched by breast cancer.
“Survivors have fought for their lives … and are left with lingering effects on their bodies, their lives and often their relationships.”
Though it’s time-consuming, the effort has been an unmitigated success, she said. Several weeks are involved from initial consult to photobook delivery. She helps fund it through individual, businesses, corporate donations, sponsorships and is working with non-profits to help provide more sessions so the survivors don’t have to pay.
After Suchy’s pilot Pink-Ribbon project in Montana, she recalls a 30-year survivor, then 70, saying she considered it a validation that survivors are whole and attractive and desirable, and that she felt the experience could help others move forward physically and emotionally.
“It’s not what God gave me, but my new normal is still beautiful,” Suchy remembers a 34-year-old double-mastectomy survivor saying. “We lose a lot of self-esteem. (This) is very much a sisterhood.”
A one-year survivor sliced to the crux: “When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, they took my breast and probed it, drilled it, augured it, cut it, and finally they cut it off,” Suchy said she remembers clearly. “I lost the sense of intimacy and pleasure with my body…dressing up helped bring it back.”
Moore said at a time when she wasn’t feeling like much, “Jana made me feel so beautiful, it was so great to see a few of the pictures and really see how I can still be so beautiful."