Powerful exhibit gives breast cancer survivors a way to express themselves

CINCINNATI - A gripping art exhibit is traveling the world showing the scars of breast cancer survivors including one Tri-state woman. The name is the SCAR Project and earlier this month the exhibit premiered in Cincinnati at ADC Art Design Consultants located downtown on Culvert Street.

"At first, you can't believe what you are looking at but the longer you look and the more you learn you are just in awe of these women and their beauty," said Litsa Spanos, ADC Art Design Consultants President.

The portraits capture 30 topless cancer survivors between the ages of 18 and 35 after they've had a mastectomy or bilateral mastectomy with their breasts replaced by a large scar.

"My thought was I wanted to show women they're only breasts," said Melissa Shelley of Phoenix, Ariz., who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 34. "If they are gone, they're gone. It didn't define who I was a person."

New York fashion photographer David Jay is the creative eye behind the portraits. He started shooting the SCAR project five years ago when his friend was diagnosed with breast cancer at 29.

After the portrait of his friend, Jay wanted to raise awareness about breast cancer in young women so he posted a request on a support website for young cancer survivors. He didn't expect such a great response. More than a hundred breast cancer survivors from around the world traveled to his studio in New York to be photographed.

"I think they trusted me that I could do something they would be proud of and that would reveal perhaps what they aren't able to say themselves and I think as a photographer that's what I'm here to do," said Jay.

Jay's ability to put his subjects at ease also provided a healing time for the survivors.

"It was a very personal experience. We bonded over me telling my story. It was intimate," said Sona Shorden of West Palm Beach, Florida. Shorden had a double mastectomy at 36 after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

"So it didn't seem too difficult to share myself with him and I wasn't thinking about sharing myself with the world," said Shorden.

Vanessa Tiemeier of Delhi is the only woman from Greater Cincinnati featured in the collection. Tiemeier was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 at 25. She endured 20 weeks of chemotherapy, a mastectomy and 25 radiation treatments.

"I just want people to remember that these are real women who have real stories and real families that it's not always happy unfortunately," said Tiemeier. "It's not pretty. But it's hopeful and I think the photos show that too."

When Tiemeier was in New York for a gallery showing, she met Joules Evans, a breast cancer survivor from Cincinnati who came to look at the exhibit.

"I asked her if she would like to try and bring it to Cincinnati and she said 'let's bring it' and we've been working since then," said Evans.

The SCAR Project premiered at Art Design Consultants Gallery from Sep. 29 to Oct. 2. Close to a dozen of the breast cancer survivors featured in the exhibit traveled to Cincinnati for the premiere.

For each survivor, the photo has a different meaning. Jessica Dietze of Omaha, Nebraska, was diagnosed with breast cancer at 23.

"I think my picture lets me put it all out there, said Dietze. "It lets me show my emotion that I am really upset this happened to me and I will forever be changed by it."

Amber Crouse of Knoxville, Tenn., said she wanted to be photographed after having a double mastectomy at 34 because the only photos she could find online at the time were clinical.

"The thing that always gets me and makes me tear up is when I read the responses on Facebook or the website of all the women that are so touched by it and feel so much more empowered and completely different about themselves after they see the photos," said Crouse. "That is the best part."

The cancer journey for Melissa Adams of Pittsburgh, Pa., began at 31 after she found a lump in her breast. As a result, she had a bilateral mastectomy followed by 30 rounds of radiation therapy.

"Too often people think this is an old lady disease and that young women can't get this," said Adams. "So for me a lot of getting through it had to do with advocating and making people aware."

Breast cancer entered Heather Salazar's life when she adopted a baby girl after the baby's mother died from breast cancer at 23. Two years later the mother of four from Tipp City, Ohio, couldn't believe it when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at 31. Her SCAR photograph includes her two young daughters.

"I wanted to prove breast cancer, it's not prejudiced. It's not black, white, young, old," said Salazar. "So it was very empowering to me."

Gabrielle Hinz of Cedar Grove, N.J., said she couldn't look at herself in the mirror after having a double mastectomy followed by chemotherapy treatments. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at 30 just five months after the birth of her second child. Being apart of the SCAR project changed the way she saw herself.

"I did it for me. I thought if this fashion photographer who shoots these gorgeous triple zero models who look like they need a cheeseburger in my opinion," said Hinz. "If he can look at me and see beauty then maybe I am a part of his art and I can see beauty in myself when this is all over and I do. That's the only thing that's really changed. I add value whether I have breasts or not."

For some of the cancer survivors, the photos reflect strength and how far they've come since their surgery. Jody Ginter of Dover, Del., was diagnosed with breast cancer at 25.

"My picture was in 2007 so I had no hair and I was still in chemo. Now I look at it," said Ginter. "And I'm a totally different person."

The health battle is an ongoing journey for Vanessa Tiemeier.

"I did have my cancer reoccur last year in my bones, lungs, and lymph nodes and a few weeks ago we also found out that it's in the lining of my brain," said Tiemeier. She is now preparing for more treatments. "I like to say today's a good day. I feel good and I can spend it with friends and family and that's what matters."

For more information about The SCAR Project, click here.

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