“In September of 2007, I married the girl of my dreams. Five months later, Jennifer was diagnosed with Stage 3B Breast Cancer.” starts the story of an American couple’s battle against breast cancer and how it changed both their lives forever. Following plenty of ups and downs in her cancer treatment, Jennifer unfortunately passed away but the photographs taken by her husband Angelo stand as a honest testament of what this part of their life was like and the beauty she has left behind to inspire others.
This sharp and evoking photo-documentary project, entitled My Wife’s Battle with Breast Cancer: The Battle We Didn’t Chose, is intended to show the daily life of a cancer patient and, in Angelo’s words, to “humanize the face of cancer, on the face of my wife.. They show the challenge, difficulty, fear, sadness, loneliness and also love that we faced, that Jennifer faced, as she battled this disease. These photographs do not define us, but they are us.”
After seeing the photographs (they stir up emotions each time we look at them) and reading the moving story behind them, we wanted to share it with others in this part of the world in the hopes of spreading Jennifer and Angelo’s message.
A passerby stares as Jen hails a cab.
Below is an interview we recently conducted with Angelo himself about the couple’s unbreakable bond, the battle, the photographs and what’s next for this project:
1. What was your first reaction upon hearing your wife was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and how did you deal with it?
When we found out that Jennifer had breast cancer, I remember immediately going numb as the world, except for Jen, blurred out of focus. Jen and I were close from the beginning of our relationship and we had a wordless bond that would never be and could never be broken. I remember looking into each other’s eyes and knowing that as long as we had each other, we would deal with everything that came our way.
From the beginning of our battle with cancer, Jen and I communicated with each other. We listened and knew that we were still in love, still a married couple, still best friends. There were times when our relationship was heavier on my shoulders and other times when Jen carried the load. On our wedding day we said “forever, in good times and bad, in sickness and health,” – both Jennifer and I took that seriously and we lived for every second with each other.
2. What was your main role, as her husband, during her treatment and what advice can you share with other men whose partners are going (or about to go) through the same thing?
A home nurse cleans and inspects Jen’s PICC line, a catheter that is inserted into her vein and runs to a large vein near the heart for intravenous access of in Jen’s case, chemotherarpy and pain medications.
My main role was whatever Jen needed. If Jen needed to laugh, I was a comedian. If Jen needed quiet, I didn’t talk. If Jen needed love, my arms were open. I don’t think there is any set way to be or road to follow but what helped me was listening to Jen and trying to stay a step ahead of her.
Flowers, doing the dishes or laundry, making the bed… all of these little things made life easier and more enjoyable for Jen. Jen made things easy because she was so positive and graceful but I still had to pay attention and at times read her mind.
It is also important for partners to take care of themselves both physically and emotionally. Find something that distracts you, something to channel your emotions into. For me it was my camera. Exercise, friendships, art – find something to rejuvenate your spirit.
3. What inspired you to start documenting your daily life with cancer through photography? Was it a conscious choice?
Jen and I lived in Manhattan but most of our family members and friends lived in Ohio. After Jen’s re-diagnosis, we found that they didn’t understand how serious things were and how much we needed from them. We tried talking and sending emails but it seemed like people were still not getting it. Then we realized that unless they saw our day-to-day, they wouldn’t be able to understand. Without walking in our shoes, how could they really understand?
That’s when I started to make photographs. The photographs were initially intended just for family and friends so that they would become more involved – we needed them to be with us. When I started posting the photos online, people reacted and Jen and I realized that this was a way that we could make a positive impact during such a trying time.
4. Did Jennifer feel uncomfortable at all with being photographed in this sensitive state?
From the beginning of our fight against cancer, Jennifer was open and shared her experiences. Jen wanted people to know what she was learning and she was very aware of how, by sharing their experiences, others before her had helped her get through each day.
A nurse pushes chemotherapy treatment, so toxic that the nurse must wear protective clothing, into Jen’s medi-port.
When I started to make these photographs, I told Jen that whenever she didn’t want the camera around all she had to do was say stop. I told her that if she wanted all of the photos to go away I would break the hard drives with no questions asked.
There was only one time when Jen asked me to put the camera away. and in a typical Jennifer style, she said, “One more photo, then stop.” When she said this I was so happy because I knew how much she trusted me.
Jen rests with our cat Brea while I prepare her daily pill regimen.
5. Is there a particular reason you chose black and white photography to share her story?
I’ve always loved black and white photography, and felt that by “removing” the color I could really focus on what was in the image.
6. Which of the photographs from the series was her favorite? Which was yours?
All of these photos are so close to my heart, I don’t know that I can choose one image as my favorite. The best I can say is the photos of Jen and I together are my favorites because it was Jen and me.
I think Jen would say the same.
7. What have you been able to achieve so far by showing the photographs? How have people, and especially cancer patients, reacted to them?
Late for a brain radiation apointment, nauseated and tired, the smells from our neighbrohood were nearly too much for Jen.
The reactions to these photos has been quite humbling. I have received more than a dozen emails from women who scheduled mammograms because of Jen. I cannot put into words how this makes me feel. Some days it is all that I can hang onto to keep moving forward.
When I started to share these photos, I was concerned that I would scare people, especially people who were recently diagnosed or in the midst of their fight. Thankfully, people with cancer have been inspired to keep fighting and Jen has become a hero and inspiration to many people.
8. What are your future plans with this project? Are there any breast cancer groups you’re currently (or planning on) collaborating with?
Right now, I am about 75% finished with editing these photos and will be publishing a book about our story.
I am also starting a non-profit organization in Jen’s name that will assist people with cancer as they deal with the daily financial struggles that come as a result of cancer treatments.
Waiting to speak with a radiologist about treatment of the cancer in her bone and on her liver, Jen is anxious and irritated.
This July-September, my photos will be exhibited at The Gathering Place in Cleveland, OH. The Gathering Place is a non-profit with a mission “to support, educate and empower individuals and families touched by cancer through programs and services provided free of charge.”
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Cancer is not a battle that should be fought alone. Support from family and friends is so important. Don’t stay away from someone who is fighting cancer because you don’t know what to say or do: you do not have to “say the right thing,” or know all the answers.
Just be there.
Send a card and say “I love you.” Send a text message with a smile, bring dinner, what ever.. Just don’t run away.
Celebrating our 4 year anniversary at a retaurant in Greenwhich Village, Jen stares off in the distance.
Jen always said to “Love every morsel of your loved ones” and she was right. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. You don’t have to be happy every second, just don’t take any seconds for granted.
Check out the “My Wife’s Battle with Breast Cancer: The Battle We Didn’t Choose” website and facebook page for more information. All the photographs in this post were shared with us by and are copyright of Angelo Merendino.