Sondria Browne runs her fingers through her short auburn hair as her black and white portraits flip by on a computer screen. In one, she sits with her arms crossed on bent knees, looking directly into the camera with a firm mouth and soft eyes. A horizontal scar runs across her chest where her right breast used to be.
“It’s still amazing to me, to look at those pictures,” she says as she shakes her head. “Just a few months ago, I was bald as a cue ball.”
On March 13 of this year, Browne was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I had found a lump in November of 2011, but it was a cyst,” she says. “And I just waited to see if it would go away, and it didn’t. So then I started digging around the cyst and I found a hard lump. I went to the doctor and the process started. I had an ultrasound, and then a biopsy. I had the biopsy on a Thursday and I was in the office the next Monday morning for the diagnosis. Surgery was scheduled for the next week.”
“It happens fast,” she says.
She had her right breast removed March 23.
The next month, still trying to grapple with all she had been through in that short time, she started a blog, at http://sondriab.blogspot.ca, about her experiences.
“I felt like I needed something to communicate what I was going through, because I didn’t even know,” she says. “I thought it would be a better way to get the word out, because repeating your story becomes difficult. You’re just so overwhelmed. I had never written anything in my life, so I was a bit nervous about it.”
She called her blog “The Rising,” and began posting thorough accounts of her experiences, beginning with the day of her diagnosis.
She writes when she feels good, she writes when she feels lost and she writes when she’s trying to sort through yet another step in the process.
True to Sondria herself, her writing voice is clear, strong, funny and honest; she holds nothing back.
“It doesn’t matter how prepared you are in life,” she says. “When that happens — ‘You’ve got cancer. We need to take your breast off’ — there’s no wrapping your head around that previous to it. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen fast. So I was always looking for answers, and that’s why I started writing.”
People were reading. In the seven months since she began her blog, Browne says, The Rising has had almost 8,000 hits.
One of her readers was photographer Malin Enström.
Enström and Browne had several mutual friends and, through them, Browne was familiar with Enström’s work.
“I was so moved by other women’s photos (of themselves after their mastectomies), that they were brave enough to have their pictures taken,” says Browne. “I don’t know if everybody gets it right away, the impact that losing your breast has on women, how it completely changes you. And when I saw these images, I immediately identified. I thought, ‘That’s me. That’s how I feel.’”
So in July, Browne asked Enström to take her picture.
“I was honoured,” says Enström. “It’s a huge trust. She’s showing her journey and it’s raw and bold and honest. To capture that, well, it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful trust.”
Enström spent an entire day with Browne, photographing her in her house and in her backyard. Some pictures were posed, many weren’t — it didn’t matter. The point, for both Enström and Browne, was to capture the honesty of Browne’s story in the same way that her blog did.
“We wanted to show what breast cancer actually looks like,” says Enström. “We wanted to show the scars, show that it’s not just a pink ribbon.”
When the pictures were developed, they were hard for Browne to look at.
“I appreciated them, but it was the first time I had a good reflection on how I looked,” says Browne. “I had no hair and the images were really raw, but beautiful. And part of the reason I wanted those pictures done was for acceptance. Because you can’t fix that. That’s who I am now, and even though I’m under reconstruction now, I’ll never be the same. And that’s OK, but I had to accept that, and that’s a hard journey.”
The photos and the session with Enström were such an integral part of Browne’s acceptance that they’re teaming up to take more pictures. This time, they’re hoping to take pictures of other women who have been through breast cancer.
Browne has been writing about the project on her blog and presenting the idea to local breast cancer groups. So far, they’ve photographed two women, and they have two more sessions next week.
“This is about an artistic portrayal, through Enström’s photography, of the realities of breast cancer,” says Browne. “I think these images will bring people back to an understanding of why it’s so big, why people do all this fundraising. Because people’s lives are so impacted, in ways that you can’t always understand, in ways that are hard to articulate.
“A story can be told through photography without a word spoken,” she adds. “I think that’s what Malin did when she took my picture. I didn’t need to say anything else to anybody when she took my picture. She caught my story.”
Browne and Enström emphasize that they are looking for Newfoundland women of any age who have been through breast cancer. The pictures can be as revealing or as clothed as the subject is comfortable with.
“I think there are other women, like the woman I spoke to yesterday, she wanted this,” says Browne. “And the woman we photographed last week, she was on board right away. There’s this acceptance that’s not there yet, and maybe through (Enström’s) photography, they could find that.”
Enström and Browne hope to have an exhibit of all the portraits some time next year.
Enström says Bonnie Leyton, owner of the Leyton Gallery of Fine Arts, has offered her space for the show.
“I think it’s going to be very emotional,” says Enström. “Even now, when I go back and look at those pictures, I get very emotional, especially when I see the scars. Because you can really see (Browne’s) story, her journey, in the scar. Every scar has a story.”
“And every story has a scar,” says Browne.