Victory Bird: A Cancer Recovery Story (Part 3 – For the Love of The F Word)

Redbird smiles

Redbird smiles

Brooke's partner in crime, Gracie

Brooke’s partner in crime, Gracie

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.

Brooke's Cancer Kickin' Boots

Brooke’s Cancer Kickin’ Boots

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.

Brooke failing miserably at making a mad face

Brooke failing miserably at making a mad face

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.

Fuck Cancer

Fuck Cancer

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.

True Beauty

True Beauty

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.

Brooke talks about her experience during the Q&A session

Brooke talks about her experience during the Q&A session

Brooke, Lea and I at the Victory Birds screening

Brooke, Lea and I at the Victory Birds screening

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.
Brooke watches as her story plays on the screen

Brooke watches as her story plays on the screen

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.

My three-year-old daughter caresses Brooke's head without judgement. Her only remark was "I like it, it's soft".

My three-year-old daughter caresses Brooke’s head without judgement. Her only remark was “I like it, it’s soft”.

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:


Victory Bird: A Cancer Recovery Story (Part 2 – Making Hair Irrelevant)

Brooke's beauty was never dependent on her hair

Brooke’s beauty was never dependent on her hair

When I met Brooke we both had incredibly long hair. I have never known her to not have long hair. Shortly after we became friends I chopped my long curls after an impulse to drop some bad relationship karma. That was the first time I donated my hair. It was like somehow all this emotional baggage was clinging to every strand of my hair, weighing me down. Once I lost that weight I felt so free, it was like my new life could begin. Funny enough, I met my husband the next day, but that’s another story.

Ready for a night out

Ready for a night out

Brooke’s hair was a seemingly integral part of who she was as a person. It was long, dark and thick – the kind of hair that only exists in shampoo commercials. She has spent a lot of her life thinking about that hair. After all, it was there every time she looked in the mirror.

Brooke lets her hair down at our wedding. Photo credit: Imageclectic

Brooke lets her hair down at our wedding. Photo credit: Imageclectic

When Brooke’s brain tumor was diagnosed the doctors recommended radiation. We all knew there was a chance that, among other things, she could lose her hair, but we hoped for the best. Brooke started strong, but was soon overwhelmed by almost every side effect radiation has to offer. Hair began to fall and a smooth, shiny spot appeared where the radiation treatments had been focused. It soon became clear that shaving the rest of her head was unavoidable. People started posting pictures on her victory page of themselves cutting, donating and shaving their heads and a head shaving party was planned to celebrate the last of 30 radiation treatments.

Only cool kids shave their heads ;) Photo credit: Lisa Hackbarth

Only cool kids shave their heads 😉 Photo credit: Lisa Hackbarth

When it finally came time to let go of the rest of her hair she was surrounded by love. Multiple people shaved their heads in solidarity with Brooke, and the heart touching moment of transformation was complete with pictures and a film crew.

Here goes... Photo credit: Lisa Hackbarth

Here goes…
Photo credit: Lisa Hackbarth

“When I first started this I told you guys that I wanted (…) a chance to show what living in authenticity is about. Show that love wins, and for people to see the community of Christ and be drawn to the nature of Christ. Clearly I cannot do that myself. (…) Your being bold and your stepping out is a testimony to me and encouraging to me through all of this. I’m just so thankful and I love you all so much, and I am just so glad that love is winning. Everyone is sharing so much of this story – it is reaching people that I don’t even know. And because of people stepping out and that boldness I am just so grateful and I love you guys so much.”
-Brooke, right before the shaving

Down it goes, falling next to Brooke's Victory Boots  Photo credit: Lisa Hackbarth

Down it goes, falling next to Brooke’s Victory Boots
Photo credit: Lisa Hackbarth

Her hair is gone but the reality of it is; she is still Brooke. Her inner beauty far outweighs any aspect of her appearance. The transition was emotional and tumultuous, but now it is like she never even had, or needed, hair. Where auburn tresses used to adorn her head she now decorates herself with scarves, hats and earrings. Even without them she looks great, of course, but then she never had to do up her hair to look amazing either. She really looks exactly the same – those knowing eyes, that radiant smile. Nothing seems missing, she is no less whole. The societal ideal of what is beautiful can’t compete with Brooke’s heart and soul. She has challenged our concept of beauty and shown us what we all should have known; Hair is irrelevant.

Brooke prepares to wrap a scarf  - one that is special, it was her grandmothers.

Brooke prepares to wrap a scarf – one that is special, it was her grandmothers.

Being bald is just a part of who Brooke is for this season, and oh boy, has she owned it! She may not have planned to drop karma via a haircut like I did back in college, but she did. Her hair loss seemed like a pivotal moment. Everything has brought her to this point so that her new life can finally begin. One where she accepts the pain, sweat and tears that belong to her and she uses them to lift up others. Every moment she has struggled, every time she has wanted to cry out, every moment she wished to be able to step out of her body and be back in her “normal” life – all of this she is using to fuel her fire. There is no direction but forward, and the future looks so, so bright.

The Beauty of Brooke

The Beauty of Brooke

Watch for my last blog of this series on Authenticity, coming next week.

If you would like to learn more about brain cancer, or would like to donate go here:

Victory Bird: A Cancer Recovery Story (Part 1 – The Beginning)

Beauty in the form of Brooke

Beauty in the form of Brooke

I met Brooke my Junior year in college. We were both students working at the same bar in between our studies. To be honest, I was skeptical about her at first. I mean, who is that happy all the time?! Surely there was something wrong with her… but no. Brooke wasn’t faking her carefree demeanor. She just made the choice to be happy, regardless of circumstance. Just because everything isn’t perfect, doesn’t mean you have to let it bring you down. She is the one who taught me how to make that daily choice – the choice to be happy.

On one of our road trips - this one was in Tennessee. Not much has changed!

On one of our road trips – this one was in Tennessee. Not much has changed!

Brooke and I at the Waco zoo. We never could resist a good cheesy picture

Brooke and I at the Waco zoo. We never could resist a good cheesy picture

We aren’t so different now that we are older, but maybe we were a little more “wild”, and just a little more silly back then. We went out and met interesting new people, we stayed in and watched goofy movies, we took awesome road trips and did fun art projects. We were never bored, and we were never boring.

We graduated college and moved on to other things and to different places, but continued to stay in touch and visit each other at every opportunity.

Visiting Brooke when she lived in Boston

Visiting Brooke when she lived in Boston

The best thing about Brooke is that she doesn’t have to rely on small talk. If you know her at all you know that she skips the weather talk and goes right to the heart of it all. We could go a year without seeing each other, finally get together, and within minutes jump to discussions about our connection to humanity, our purpose in life and the existence of God. If you don’t want to dig deep, don’t talk to Brooke.

One drawback of Brooke’s beauty and altruistic nature is that occasionally people discount the beauty of her Self and attempt to take advantage. I found myself pulling her out of situations more than once (she did the same for me many times as well, but that’s a whole different blog post). In a way I feel like the lesson of loving with authority has been her purpose in this world, because she has been tested on this one thing again and again. I saw her go through some challenging situations but she came out on top time after time. She never stopped believing that something better was around the corner, always keeping faith. Through the years I have watched her learn how to stand up for herself – bully after bully – and refuse to be a doormat, all while maintaining a smile.
Then, when it seemed she had finally perfected the craft of gentle strength, came the biggest bully we never expected. Cancer, in the form of a brain tumor.

Brooke has spent a lot of time in this room, healing.

Brooke has spent a lot of time in this room, healing.

It still seems surreal to even say it. When I found out I remember being completely in denial, thinking that this was temporary. This was no big deal – She’d take some medicine and be fine. I spoke with her on the phone and her candid honesty hit me hard as she told me that she was supported, but afraid. My heart sank when her mom described the seizure, the concussion and the MRI that identified the mass in her brain. The plan was to take a biopsy the next day. I gathered my things quickly, left the kids with my husband, picked up a few of our mutual friends and headed up to the hospital to meet her in the hospital chapel.

When I got there I was amazed at the community that surrounded her. Her mom had come immediately and was there by her side. A good number of friends from her church were there. The addition of myself and those with me made the crowd seem complete. We sang, we prayed, and we took communion together. The tiny St. David’s Chapel shimmered with orange and purple light as the sun set. Everyone’s faces were smeared with tears. Tears of sadness, love and hope. Seeing Brooke so vulnerable in that moment, taking in every bit of positivity that she could, I wanted to take her in my arms. I wanted to hold her like I hold my babies. I wanted to kiss her head so she would leap from my lap with the power of kisses that heal children. Kisses might not work for brain tumors, but it didn’t stop me from trying. When there was a call to lay hands on her I was there immediately. I could see her comfort in that moment, with so many people pouring every ounce of their energy onto her. I knew doubts might haunt her mind on this journey of recovery, but we were doing good work that evening. The positive power of prayer gave her the light to get through the darkness.

Photo credit to Tim Waters

Photo credit to Tim Waters

That day Brooke’s Face”Brooke” Victory Page blew up with pictures, prayers, bible verses and encouraging images. The outpouring of love was abundant and the group quickly grew to over six hundred members. Six hundred people sharing, loving, praying. Hundreds of strangers sharing the one thing they had in common – they wanted Brooke to heal and feel loved.

The next day she underwent brain surgery as her doctors biopsied the tumor that, if removed, could have rendered her immobile on the left side. As Brooke learned to walk all over again in physical therapy, the outcome started to seem hopeful. The results came back as a low-grade Glioma. Malignant, but slow growing with a good chance of responding well to treatment. Her doctors decided that radiation would be the best approach.

Brooke and her many supporters at the Brain Power 5K

Brooke and her many supporters at the Brain Power 5K

Brooke "runs" the Brain Power 5K Photo Credit: Lisa Hackbarth

Brooke “runs” the Brain Power 5K Photo Credit: Lisa Hackbarth

I went to visit Brooke about a week after the biopsy. She was moving slow, but in good spirits. I arrived just after she had finally been able to bathe and I offered to comb her now clean hair for her. It was therapeutic and calming running that comb through her long, thick hair. I gingerly made my way around the incision, careful not to snag the glue that held the outer layer of her tender skin together. I remember thinking that if love were medicine she would surely be cured. It did not occur to me that it might be a long time until I would be able touch her lustrous locks of hair again.

I don’t really subscribe to the belief that “everything happens for a reason” but I can’t help but think that all of the trials in her life seemed to be training her for this. Brooke is fighting back, and she isn’t giving up. Any inkling of a “doormat” is gone. She has grown into a fully fledged warrior; a Victory Bird.

And we all know: Love wins.

Brooke's signature smile

Brooke’s signature smile

Check in for “Part 2: Making Hair Irrelevant” next week.
To learn more about the Brain Power 5K:

A Preemie Story: World Prematurity Day

Cassie has an infectious smile

Cassie has an infectious smile

Cassie is a beautiful, vibrant and curious baby girl of about 18 months, and is the youngest of five children. Her arrival, however, was much different from her siblings. The celebration of her life had to be balanced with the trauma of her birth.

Nan, Cassie’s mom, had only experienced natural, drug-free birth before then. Her water broke early – too early – at 31 weeks. She went to the hospital and was put on strict bed rest hoping to keep baby girl in for just a few more weeks, but Cassie had her own plans. At 32 weeks pregnant Nan was whisked to the operating room for a C-Section – with Cassie’s leg already through the birth canal. The procedure was complicated by the protruding limb, but after much work by the surgeons Cassie was born weighing in at 3 pounds 14 ounces.

Once Nan began to heal from the surgery she did the hardest thing that one should never have to do – leave their baby at the hospital while they go home.

Nan knew that breast milk would be the best choice for her preemie daughter and her weak immune system, so while she was recovering, and not producing milk yet, Cassie received the blessed gift of donor milk.

Cassie signs "Milk" with her mom

Cassie signs “Milk” with her mom

Nan had an advantage that many moms of preemies don’t have – she had breastfed all four of her previous children. Knowing that she could do it she pumped relentlessly. She hooked herself up every two hours for almost a week. Finally her body responded and she was able to pump her own milk to feed her baby, even though she could not directly breastfeed her. Yet.

As things started to look up Nan and her husband Dan were hit with another obstacle; Cassie was struggling to breathe so she had to be rushed via ambulance to another hospital that was better equipped to help her. This is where the doctors found that she had congenital diaphragmatic hernia, an opening in the diaphragm that allows the stomach and intestines to crowd and affect development of the lungs. At four weeks of age, or what would have been 36 weeks gestation, Cassie had surgery to repair the hernia. Fluid had to be removed from her lungs through a tube multiple times. The breast milk that Nan had been pumping had to be processed by the milk bank to remove the fat so that Cassie’s system could properly digest the nutrients as her diaphragm, stomach and intestines healed.

Cassie still gets important nutrients for her immune system though extended breastfeeding

Cassie still gets important nutrients for her immune system though extended breastfeeding

Nan and Dan took turns being with Cassie in the hospital, having to explain to their older children that they could not visit their little sister. Finally, at two months old, Cassie went home. Her homecoming marked what would have been her original estimated due date.

Cassie and all of her siblings - photo credit to Jennifer Ricca and Deltona Markel.

Cassie and all of her siblings – photo credit to Jennifer Ricca and Deltona Markel.

Nan struggled to get Cassie to latch properly but persevered and is still nursing today. In fact, in her efforts to pump enough milk to keep up with Cassie she actually ended up having so much extra milk that she was able to donate two gallons back to the Milk Bank. She told me that it was a great feeling to be able to help other mothers who might be overwhelmed with the challenges of beginning a breastfeeding relationship with a preemie.

The peaceful face of a full baby after a nursing session

The peaceful face of a full baby after a nursing session

When I met with Nan in August to take these pictures for National Breastfeeding Month Cassie was 18 months old and had just been diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy in her legs. She was not walking independently yet (it sure didn’t stop her from getting around, though!) and was just learning to use her walker. The image of her with her new apparatus is so beautiful and shiny that it inspired the nickname “Golden Girl”.

Cassie is all smiles as she learns to walk with assistance

Cassie is all smiles as she learns to walk with assistance

Since then Cassie has progressed with the help of physical therapy and can finally walk short distances independently. While her lungs may never function like yours or mine, she is tenacious and has so much to offer the world. Her smile is so bright and innocent that you can’t help but look past her challenges and see the beauty and joy that she brings to her family and friends.

If you are interested in learning more about supporting parents of preemies or breast milk donation check out these links:

Normalizing: A Happy Breastfeeding in Public Story


Breastfeeding in Public

Yesterday my family went to eat and play at Southpark Meadows. My three-and-a-half-year-old daughter waltzed around the empty stage and made a new friend, a(n almost) two-year-old boy. I wore my six-month-old on my chest as I sat with my husband and the boy’s dad, laughing and taking pictures while our kids did the most adorable little dance together. As the mom and pop-arazzi took their shots, up walked the little boy’s mom.

She was nursing a seven-week-old baby boy using a cover. The show stopped and the dancing fiends came over to us as we all started to chat. My daughter – who has never seen me breastfeed with a cover – soon realized there was a baby under there and started trying to peek in through the top and lift the edges so she could see the tiny baby. I swiftly grabbed her hand and reminded her about privacy, concerned that she was going to embarrass the little boy’s mom.

“I’m so sorry, she is so used to seeing me nurse that she doesn’t realize you might not want to show yourself,” I apologize.

To my surprise the nursing momma tells me, “If it’s ok with you it doesn’t bother me if she looks.”

I let go of my daughter’s hand and tell her it is OK to look. She lifts the cover, sticks her ENTIRE head in there and looks at the little baby, still latched on.

“Aaaawwwwwwwwww! CUTE baby!” She squeals.

Then… nothing. There was no talk of breasts, milk or how babies eat. She made no judgement on her new friend’s exposed breast, how her baby ate or the choices she made. Just an observation of how cute that tiny little baby was and then we all moved on with our conversation.

It struck me later how insignificant this was to my daughter because breastfeeding is so NORMAL to her. I am so thankful to this mom, whom I didn’t even know, for being open to sharing her nursing experience with my daughter so that I could witness this beautiful “nothing.”

What if we lived in a world where women could breastfeed their babies, exposed, in public, and the only whisper to be heard would be, “Awwwwwwww! What a cute baby!”

Normalize breastfeeding. It works.


You can also find this story here: