When I went to photograph Brooke I went with the intention of helping her see how beautiful she was with her new look. I felt so blessed that she trusted me with taking photos of her newly shaved head and I was inspired by her vulnerability. I knew that she had been surrounded by overwhelming positivity and encouragement, and might just be to that point… You know, the one that everyone reaches when something turns your world upside down and the whole positive attitude thing starts to get old? When you just want to be allowed to kick something? Yea, that feeling. I was ready to go there with her if it served her.
I arrived and we were all smiles. I slowly took pictures, figuring out my camera settings as we talked about the past and the stuff of life. I remember as she looked out the window I thought “This is just like before. She is the same old Brooke, just with awesome scarves for hair.” I went through her accessories with her to help her complete her outfit choices. It felt just like when we would help each other get dressed together before we went out for a fun night during college, so much fun! We tried different combinations with different shots and angles. Gracie, her dog, relentlessly tried to photobomb us and we laughed about her obsession with tennis balls. It was fun; we giggled and sighed together just like old times. After some time I could see Brooke was starting to get a little tired but we really wanted to get some shots outside. She made a slow and purposeful wardrobe change as I grabbed the walker she requested. The trek down the stairs was slow and painstaking. This was the first time I had seen Brooke start to wear out, and we had barely been moving around in her room. I realized that my assumption that this was the same old Brooke, just without hair, was way off base.
It was beautiful outside – a perfect Fall day in Texas. I got a few shots of her smiling as she told me about her dress, and her victory boots. As we went on I could see the exhaustion on her face and I knew it was time for the patch. I handed it to her and at first we laughed about the simultaneous appropriateness and absurdity of the F-word (One of my personal favorites. Brooke? Not a frequent user). I got smiles from her, but I knew it was wearing thin. I told her I wanted her mad face. All I got was a smile and a laugh.
That’s when things got real. We talked about how cancer has taken her power, her mobility, her hair. We talked about the pain of putting your life on hold and finding out who is really in your corner. We talked about being able to address these feelings and put them in a place where they can be noticed, accepted and dis-empowered. All of those raw feelings, angst and pain adequately expressed in two words: Fuck Cancer. That’s when I got this picture.
I love this image. She is so fierce, the epitome of finding power in owning your anger.
I had been holding onto the image, not sure what to do with it. It was beautiful, and I loved it, but I didn’t know where it belonged in all of this. It probably wasn’t for everyone, for sure, but I knew it had a place, a place where it would help people – people who were looking for an outlet for their pain and anger. A few weeks later as she began to taper off of the steroids that had helped her get through radiation Brooke’s body faltered. She kept landing herself back in the Emergency Room, weak and dehydrated. I felt angry. Brooke didn’t deserve this pain and I was pissed that such a warm, loving person was hurting so much. It was all so unfair. So, in a moment of my own anger and frustration, I posted the Fuck Cancer picture on Facebook with this caption:
I have been going back and forth as to whether I should post this image or not because it has an ugly word in it; I thought it might be offensive to some. But you know what? We SHOULD be offended. Cancer offends me. Cancer is ugly. It is mean and it is a bully. It turned Brooke’s life upside down and has put her through more than most of us can even comprehend. Today Brooke visited the ER due to complications from tapering off of her steroids. She has been through so much pain that she doesn’t deserve. I can’t help but get mad sometimes and think: Fuck you, Cancer.
It quickly went viral, my most popular image as of yet. The comments and support were amazing – and I suspect that they came just in time for Brooke during one of her most difficult trials. “Likes” and comments of support kept coming, words like “With a capital F, but louder!!” and my favorite quote from my own father “Rather than being appalled by language be offended by injustice”. Brooke’s own response was perfectly executed:
“If you know me well, you know that the sound of me trying to say this word sounds silly. But, I will say, it doesn’t mean I haven’t had feelings or thoughts about my situation that would be well represented by this.
A little back story on this, Mandi gave me this patch. She asked me to take a picture of it when she took those awesome raw and authentic shots of where I have been during the season. literally, where I am at; like, my bedroom for most of the last four months & my view from my window with all my books around. When she was taking this picture she wanted me to make an “I hate you cancer face”. I’m not very good at holding intense faces with out giggling. It was difficult at first. Then Mandi started listing the things that I have experienced over the past four months, out loud. It was emotional and I felt permission to be angry. And that is when my demeanor got real, like this … But with the expression and the patch, it gave an authentic representation of what I was feeling in that moment … There is freedom in being outwardly honest with how you are feeling. It loses any power that is keeping you from being at peace … As I started to be authentic in my quiet time with God it was emptying out the space in my spirit for healing, forgiveness , and faith to fill it back in. God already knows how we are feeling, and he is a relational God. So, like confiding in a friend, it creates a closeness and provides a space for healing in our mind, body, and soul.”
Her words about “permission to be angry” kept resonating and I knew the post had been made at the perfect time. I was glad I had waited. Then, out of the blue, I got an email from a film student who was making a documentary about Brooke’s journey – and they wanted to use my image! I was thrilled and terrified about the prospect of publicity. I had doubts about it belonging in her inspirational story, so I offered up some of the other images and left it in the film maker’s hands.
I was invited to view the screening of Victory Birds, produced by Jennifer Brofer and Audrey Long. There were so many people there. I knew no one but Brooke and our friend, Lea, who came with me, but I could feel the love resonating in that space. We walked in to see pictures of Brooke throughout her life lovingly placed out on a table. I saw her in the distance on her laptop, opening more Skype windows than I have ever seen on one screen so that her family could watch from afar. It was really awesome to meet some of Brooke’s biggest supporters; of whom I had mostly only interacted with on Facebook. The founder of the Brain Power 5k, Kelly Bolinger, was in attendance along with some who had run the 5k with her. Those who had shaved their heads in solidarity with Brooke were also there. A room full of beautiful, authentic, people. Everyone waited quietly, unsure of what to expect.
The film itself was so touching, so inspiring. It portrayed a powerful parallel between Brooke’s hurdles and her race at the Brain Power 5k, ending with her crossing the finish line. Not one person left without shedding a tear. The part where I lost it, where I could no longer deny the effect Brooke had had on my heart, was when the film ended and my photo – the Fuck Cancer photo – flashed up onto the screen. All of my fear of judgement over that one word was wiped out as the entire audience threw their hands in the air and cheered.
What I have learned from Brooke and her journey is that being positive doesn’t mean pretending everything is fine, it means we choose to be happy and thrive despite our circumstances. Addressing our frustrations is vital to our survival, because when we bury them deep they eat at us from the inside. Being vulnerable and real, as Brooke has made herself by making her story so public, gives us strength to carry the weight of our burdens.
I will leave you with this:
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
To read more from Brooke herself, check out her blog: http://beincreative.blogspot.com/