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I Wanted To Hide From The Camera But I Didn't Want To Let Cancer Win

February 26th, 2018 |

by ritawoker | Survivor: Breast Cancer    Connect

When I was growing up, my parents took lots of photos, many of the instant Polaroid kind. Mom and Dad documented the everyday fun of birthday parties and family dinners, but there was only one year that we had a formal portrait taken of my three younger siblings and me. That photo was shot during my 5th-grade year, the most awkward of my adolescence.

At the time, I was barreling through puberty, and I had recently made a rebellious style change by cutting my signature long, auburn hair into a 1980s cropped, feathered bob. The short-lived haircut was immortalized in the photo, which was framed, hung up and disseminated to relatives throughout the rest of my childhood.

After getting married and having children of my own, I resolved to get a formal Christmas portrait taken every year so that my kids would have all their stages—from chubby baby to adorable toddler to budding middle-schooler—documented. Surely they would have at least one picture they loved looking at when they got older.

Our first photo was at a mall studio, with my son perched on my lap and my husband and me smiling broadly. We moved up to outdoor photos, coordinating outfits and a second son. Every year I got better at styling the four of us in Pinterest-worthy clothing while smiling amidst leafy landscapes. I proudly mailed out more than 100 Christmas cards showing off our latest family vignette.

Then—bam! In 2016, with my sons in 7th and 3rd grades, I was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer. When time came for our annual portrait, I was wearing a wig and penciling in my eyebrows. An intensive chemo regimen stole my long, red hair and made me painfully sick.

I put off scheduling the photo. I didn't want to be a part of it. I wanted to curl up and disappear. "Don't look at me," I thought. "I don't deserve to be in this picture. Maybe this year is just for the boys."

I cringed at the thought of friends receiving the photo card and thinking, "Oh, look what happened to her. Poor thing."

But taking myself out of the picture would've been like letting cancer win. I was still my sons' mother; I was still my husband's wife. I was in treatment, enduring the drugs and surgery and radiation so that I could come out the other side and embrace life again.

My husband urged me to continue with the portrait as we did every year. We went on a family shopping trip to pick out nice outfits in tones of turquoise and purple. I put on my wig and stood next to my family against the autumn background of a local walking path. I mustered up some courage and looked into the camera. I printed the photo cards and mailed them.

When I study the picture, even now as my hair has grown back, I am still critical. My face looks puffy, my shoulders are slumped, and I know that I'm wearing a wig. But I am smiling. And I am still part of the family. My boys will have this picture to prove I didn't walk away from them.

What is the greatest lesson cancer has taught me? To stay in the picture.

2014: Pre-Cancer

2016: The Year Of The Wig

2017: Post-Chemo Hair

Photo credit Carol Graham Photography.

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ritawoker's picture
Rita Woker is a Stage III breast cancer survivor living in suburban Chicago with her husband and two sons. She is a part-time project coordinator for a nonprofit that runs afterschool clubs teaching elementary kids about character development and volunteerism.