Every photographer should photograph a cancer patient at some point in his/her life. It teaches you how little of a person you are and how you’re but one character in the story of life. That’s what I learned at least when I had the privilege of photographing the double mastectomy of my friend, Diana Sheldon, 38, last fall.
Warning: This article contains graphic photos of a breast cancer surgery.
I met Diana while photographing her yoga studio in the fall of 2015 for a work-related assignment. She was upbeat, commanding of the energy and people around her, and ever-caring. She was a person that you couldn’t help but immediately trust and love. She gave me her number that day and a week later, I was on the doorsteps of her house, nervous, but ready to photograph a party celebrating her last chemotherapy session for breast cancer.
As we kept in touch in following weeks and exchanged the usual pleasantries of “I love these photos” and “thanks for letting me document it, your family and friends are great,” she dropped a bombshell on me — the chemotherapy hadn’t worked. She was scheduled to undergo a double mastectomy, removing both of her breasts. And she wanted me to photograph it.
As an aspiring visual storyteller, I jumped at the opportunity. It felt like the logical step most young photojournalists do — tell the story of cancer and get lauded for it. As I gowned up the day of the surgery, however, I felt a sense of anxiety for what I was about to do.
I was at a point in my career and life in which I had been burned out from doing what I did. I was exhausted from covering the same things from the last few years and felt like I wasn’t going to progress as a storyteller, and that covering another cancer story just fell into that all. It left me separated and relatively cold as I prepared to share this intimate moment.
As Diana gowned up and had her IV placed in her, Greg, her husband, smiled and laughed as she showed off her “fuck this shit” socks to all the doctors and nurses around her. She was in positive spirits; for, she had the people she cared about around her.
She soon went out of consciousness and was wheeled out of the waiting room towards the operating room, leaving her family and friends behind.
As I walked next to her and the doctors on our way to the operating room, a sense of guilt rushed over me — this wasn’t fair that I could go with her but they had to stay behind. It wasn’t fair that I’d be able to see what was happening and they couldn’t.
As all but one spotlight was diminished, I could feel the adrenaline start rushing through my body. The opportunity to utilize that selective lighting became apparent, the methodical but cold separation of her breasts from the rest of her body via a blank sheet struck me, and the desire to figure out what all of this meant for Diana and her loved ones and how to communicate it visually started pulsing through my mind. I felt a responsibility no longer to myself, but these people who had ingratiated me into their lives at this moment of vulnerability.
Four or five hours later, I dizzily walked out of the room back towards the waiting area. Her husband looked at me as I walked up, both with surprise and hope that I could communicate something to him. I was at a loss of words, not so much because of the dualism of brutality and beauty of the surgery, but because I had left it all in the photographs I had taken.
The physical reality of being in that room for countless hours and forcing myself to constantly adjust and find new ways to communicate the racing thoughts through my mind had left me absolutely drained. As saddened as I was that this beautiful person and her family and friends had to experience this inhumanity of sorts, I felt solace and satisfaction knowing that I could provide a way for them to know and share this moment that they would otherwise be blind to.
We waited for another couple of hours in the waiting room before we were allowed to see her. Even if her exhausted physical state, Diana was hungry for human contact and the food on the dining menu her parents had to help her hold. As I said my goodbye for the night, she told me she loved me and I felt a pride in knowing why.
The process of having breast cancer is not unlike the other health struggles of humanity — it pushes us to our most extremes mentally and physically and sets us to rely on the people around us to help reason the moment in our minds. For Diana, a person whose radiance forces people to gravitate towards her, I was just one of many who supported her through her journey and could help her provide insight and reason to who she was in that moment and moving forward.
This project is titled The Looking Glass. You can find the full photo series and a video on Xu’s website.
About the photographer: Joseph Xu is a visual storyteller based out of the Midwest. He works freelance assignments and full time as the Media Content Producer for the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His list of clients and publications include the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News, and more. You can find more of his work on his website.