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Jo – Breast cancer, domestic violence and rape survivor

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Jo - Breast cancer survivor

Breast cancer, domestic violence and rape survivor

My name is Jo, I’m 48 years old. I was born and raised in the north bay, CA.
I’m a breast cancer, domestic violence and rape survivor.

September 12, 2018, my doctor called me while I was in my office and said “Are you sitting down? I’m sorry, Jo. The results from the biopsy are back and it is malignant. Triple Negative Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, Grade 3”

I didn’t know what Triple Negative Breast Cancer meant, or that it accounted for only 10-15% of all breast cancers and therefore had the least research, and there is no targeted therapy, despite it being the most aggressive with the worst prognosis. I didn’t know there were tumors that even HAD a Ki67 speed of growth of over 30%, let alone my 92% (I don’t fuck around- go big or go home). Even having worked in pathology, I’d never heard of it. I knew the stages and grading terms, but didn’t really know what it meant except on paper.
The oncologist called me the next day while I was at work. The following week, I had a dozen appointments. Within two weeks, I was in surgery for my port, had gone through every scan imaginable, had every blood test imaginable, and had met my “team”.

I did not go back to work. I didn’t know SO many things. I had no idea.
I didn’t know that there were cancers that even when caught early, grew SO fast. I didn’t know that mine was one of the very few breast cancers to carry the label “poor prognosis”. The numbers I was eventually given was that less than 30% of people with this cancer survived past the 5 year mark. I didn’t know that the cancer I had required one of the most toxic chemotherapies in existence, and that I would feel SO sick within just 2 short weeks. That I’d lose my memory, my vocabulary, all muscle tone,my balance, that I’d go into menopause, that I’d shake, that I’d sleep 12-14 hours a day. I didn’t know that my heart would break for my kids, watching me go through this and they’d be falling apart, trying so hard to be strong, but I could see how it was tearing them to pieces, and there was nothing I could do to comfort them. I didn’t know I would feel like I was dying.

16 infusions. Countless MRI’s, Ultrasounds, xrays, CT scans. I don’t even know how many IV’s. Over 100 blood tests (I still have them every three months) injections into my stomach with ridiculously long needles. Port surgery, biopsies, complete mastectomy, first, second and third phase reconstruction, neurosurgery, Chemo-induced hyperparathyroidism requiring ANOTHER surgery, neuropathy, brain-fog. 40 different, related “conditions” in my health chart. Three metastatic scares. Oral chemo. Pills, pills, pills.
Being a “survivor” or “thriver” is not something I ever saw in my future.  I don’t feel brave or inspiring; the pink ribbons don’t resonate with me- there wasn’t a choice. Even today, almost 5 years later, I still feel more tired than I ever did and there’s still pain. It is, by FAR, the most difficult thing I have ever been through, and honestly, I will be still going through it in some way next year, the year after, and the year after, and even after that. Forever, really. But through all of this, I know, without a fucking doubt, I am the luckiest and most grateful person alive. I don’t know that anyone has ever gotten the level of love and support that I received.

Now, everybody, go do a self exam!

What inspired you to be involved in the project, Underwater Transformation?

My daughter, Aria was involved in the project and encouraged me to reach out to you from day one. I was hesitant because I seemed to always be having one surgery or another, and I felt so disconnected from my body that it seemed unfathomable that I would feel comfortable being in front of a camera. However, as I began to think about it more, I realized that perhaps being weightless, under water, and in front of a camera would be a good thing! Maybe, I could take the moment to do something that required me to be present in my body, feel it, own it, and appreciate it while being a part of something beautiful.

What were your plans for the photo shoot? What are you expecting from it?

I wasn’t sure what my expectations were! I knew that I had not been under water in ages, and was nervous and excited. I had several things to wear, but also felt that perhaps as part of the intention to really connect with my body, I might also like to just use fabric and be nude. The entire process was more fun than I had anticipated, and I was much more comfortable than I thought that I would be. I am not good at being vulnerable, and I tend to shy away from trying things that make me feel that way. Being in water, in front of a camera, with this body that has been through so much, made me feel vulnerable. However, Erena is basically a mermaid, and her presence and calm made all of the difference.

How was the experience with an underwater portrait session?

Being underwater, I did not have many of the aches and pains that I have when I just move around in general. I was surprised that I could move my arms and legs around easily without it feeling stiff or sore. That was lovely. Being underwater and only hearing my heartbeat helped me feel centered. The biggest challenge was that I was not at all used to holding my breath, and I kept getting water up my nose! It was also really difficult for me to focus on not squinching up my face while I was thinking about where my arms were. My brain did NOT want to do multiple things at once.

How was your mood after you finished? 

Afterward, I was a little tired, and also pretty relaxed. I think that all of the breathing, movement, and focus was really helpful in sort of giving me this blissed out, relaxed feeling.

My mood was great! I felt relaxed and upbeat. I was proud of myself for having completed the session, and grateful for the space, Erena’s time, and my body.

How did you sleep the night of the photo shoot?

Really well! Due to all of my surgeries, I was only released to lift over 5 lbs in the last 6 months. I have spent the last 4 years with little to no movement, lifting, or any kind of exercise. It was wonderful to move around in the water and then feel tired!

What does water mean to you?

I have lived my entire life near the ocean, and nearly all of my core, happy-vacation memories are on, in, or near water; the ocean, rivers, lakes. Water, to me, is a profound source of both reverence and solace. I have developed a deep-rooted respect and love for just how huge it is and the myriad of life contains. I think that water symbolizes a harmonious balance, a reminder to flow with life’s currents and adapt to change.

What is your dream? What’s your future?

Ohhh, big question! Honestly, I dream for stability, health, and happiness for my kids. Nothing crazy- just comfort and stability, in whatever form that takes.

Do you think this experience could help overcome your trauma?

I do think that the process of focusing on oneself in this medium, and with your gentle guidance could absolutely be helpful in overcoming trauma, and yes I would go back to the water!

How was Erena working with you?

Erena was fantastic! Encouraging, gentle, kind, and filled with positive feedback and affirmations. I appreciated so much her patience and calm demeanor. That in and of iteself is healing.

Would you recommend underwater transformation to other survivors or anyone? 

Yes, I would! My advice would be to try to be in the moment. I kept getting caught up in whether I was doing things “right” which made it so it took a little time for me to relax. Even so, I was having fun 🙂

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