It was instant, our friendship. You know how you meet someone and it’s like you’ve known them forever? That’s how I, along with anyone else I’m certain, feels when you meet Elise. I first met Elise in 2013 via You Night. You Night, is an organization that addresses the emotional needs of women who have or have cancer. It’s a unique and beautiful power house of support for how to regain self esteem after cancer.
My role is in helping the women see themselves as beautiful again by teaching them how to feel confident in photos. You’ll be hearing more about that later.
She was just out of reconstruction and cancer free then, having beaten stage 3, triple negative breast cancer. She found it herself through a breast exam, while nursing Norah, her youngest daughter. There are five children, Bella, Sophia, Jude, Naomi, and Norah with her husband, Jason.
Creative kindred spirits we are, as well as the kids. Gosh, I don’t think there are any other kids on this planet that I love having over more than ALL FIVE of her kids at the same time! Whether we’re decorating pumpkins, or watching Cinderella while wearing tiaras, or filling up the cart with snacks at Target, love and happiness are palpable when we are together.
It was fall 2016, and I was traveling, documenting then presidential candidate Trump, when Elise text me,
“I need to tell you the cancer is back. Jason and I will be telling people tomorrow and I didn’t want you to read about it on facebook. I promise it’s all going to be ok.”
Broken, and feeling like the wind had been knocked out of me,
I wrote back one word. It was the worst word I could think of, for the worst news I could’ve gotten from her.
I won’t write it here, but it starts with F and rhymes with duck.
She responded, “Exactly. Come see me when you get home.”
I did. At the kitchen table, she explained that it was in her lungs and liver, abdomen, and chest wall, but that the drs felt they could contain it. Elise encouraged me, and others, with a resilience and faith that I’ve honestly never seen before.
None of that has changed.
While the cancer was eradicated from her lungs and liver, it resurfaced this year in her brain, spine. This time she told me to sit down before reading everything.
“At least 30 tumors that they can count.” She said.
The conversations continued.….whole head radiation, chemo for the rest of her life, stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, gamma knife, memory loss…
She then told us that pending the side effects of the radiation, we may have to start sending selfies and introducing ourselves just in case she couldn’t remember who we were when we texted. My heart knew we had to start filming. We had talked about it before, but put it off when she got better. In 3 days we had hair, makeup, wardrobe, and a location. I was determined to get her on camera before radiation had a chance to take her memory and hair.
I have photographed many people, celebrities, politicians, causes, even the President of the United States, but it felt like my whole photography career was for this, for her, for right then. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so much peace going into a session. It’s as if God came down and whispered, “She’s not done yet. Every little thing is gonna be alright.”
That day we ate, we drank, we laughed. We put on beautiful dresses and hair and makeup, in the most beautiful home. We were dancing and celebrating….and we still are.
Here are some photographs from that day.
***Special thanks to Susan Hanlon, Melanie Dangle Hollander, Candice Laizer, Allison McDonnel, Lisa McKenzie, and Erin Schaumburg for their help in making this photoshoot a success.
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