A few days before Christmas in 2002, my mother shared the news that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Having lived with the impression that cancer was a death sentence, I was devastated. I began to imagine what she would look like without hair and a breast. As the idea was forming, she asked if I would photograph her through this process. I felt that if we turned the disease into a project, it would become less scary. We could objectify and observe it. If we could anticipate the completion of the project, then we could anticipate the end of the disease.I photographed my mother over the next year, documenting her recovery from a full mastectomy, chemotherapy treatments, and radiation. At the same time, I saw her deal with her own mother’s mortality as my grandmother spent her final weeks with us. I knew that my mother had always kept a journal, and I saw her writing in one throughout her treatment. I asked if I could use her words to give the photographs a voice and with her permission, put together a book of images accompanied by her text. My photographs and her journal entries tell a parallel story of an illness that I now look back on as something we were lucky to go through together.
In 2006, the cancer returned and my mother lived with the disease for another four years before she passed away in 2010. While she knew that a cure was no longer possible, she was determined to live the rest of her life to the fullest. She acted in several plays and films, never missing a performance even at her weakest. Each night, she transformed into characters who lived free of cancer and for those brief hours, her energy was restored. Acting was her therapy, or as she called it: Doctor Theatre. It was an integral part of her treatment and healing. Throughout her illness, photography was my therapy. The lens allowed me to look at her changed body, to make sense of the endless treatments and ultimately to be closer to her. While the photographs highlight upsetting moments of vulnerability and hopelessness, they also show her incredible will to overcome this disease with both strength and grace. My mother’s will to live was empowering for me and, I hope, will continue to be for other women and their families who are battling cancer. This experience showed me who my mother really was, and it brought us together in ways I could never have imagined.This is our journal.
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Before the News, 25 November 2002
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The Doctor’s Sketch, 24 January 2003 Thursday, 12 December 2002 So about 2 weeks ago? I think…. I had this lumpy feeling under my right arm. I've had it before and it would just go away, thank God. And it did go away but last night in bed in NY, Annabel was next to me and my right breast felt sore and uncomfortable. So I felt around and there was this knotty lump. It's scary. Where did that come from? Oh please God, why is it there? Don't let it be. And how many countless women have said that? It can't be, it isn't, oh no. Anyway, tomorrow in LA I go to see Dr. Blanchard. I keep feeling it to see if it has gone. But no, it's there. Went very briefly to the web site about breast cancer. It said only thirty percent of lumps are cancer. I don't have time for this. I have my play. I can't have cancer. I can't.
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Testing, 15 January 2003
Saturday, 28 December 2002 I’ve begun imagining what it will be like without my breast. I’ve pressed it back flat as I look in the mirror. Try thinking forward to it being just a flat thing with a scar. That’s what woke me up so early I think. Just picturing it. I hope I can come here to my Illyria to recover. I’d like to be here—Carry could come and it would be peaceful and right. I will heal and since I have the knowledge, the sure true feeling in myself—How could I not recover from this? I will—it will be my mission. It will work. Maybe all this – all this is to show me, and through me, to show other people that nothing must be taken for granted. Life is this journey and we must try to make each bit count.
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Scans, 15 January 2003
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Prayer, 15 January 2003
Tuesday, 14 January 2003 I feel so young. So well! How can I have a potentially life-threatening disease? I feel I’ve been given an extraordinary gift. I am seeing things, colours, senses, the world around me so sharply. I am living fully because I am under the possible guillotine of an earlier-than-expected death.
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The Night Before Surgery, 15 January 2003
Wednesday, 15 January 2003, 10:55 pm before bed, the night before Last supper. One more hour when I can drink water. Tests all day. Tears with my Annabel before the statue of St. Elizabeth Seton in St. Patrick’s. Goodbye to a part of me. It’s done its job—it’s been a good nurturer of my children. It is looking swollen now. And a bit of a funny shape—time to say goodbye.
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Waiting, 16 January 2003
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Laughing Before Surgery, 16 January 2003
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Surgical Drains, 17 January 2003
Friday, 17 January 2003 I couldn't write yesterday because I was in Morphine Land. But anyway, my op went fine. Some of the best moments were being with my group waiting to go in. Laughing, loving, then up in the room in and out of consciousness. Benjy came. My beautiful Benjy. My Annabel slept with me on the pull out chair bed. I've seen my scar-it isn't bad at all. The only worry is what is my future prognosis. How much chemo, etc. I’m feeling really good—my scar doesn’t freak me out—I’m OK—I’m OK. Everyone is so nice here.
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Going Home, 18 January 2003
Sunday, 19 January 2003 As Annabel and I left the hospital we were helped by William, who had earlier brought me my paper and my breakfast. Waiting for the elevator I started to cry.“One day at a time” he said.“One day at a time. My Mom had cancer,” he said, “so I’ve been on both sides of this.”
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Examining the Scar, 19 January 2003 Monday morning, 3 February 2003 — Candles Slight niggling worry. Yesterday and early this morning—quick, sharp, short electrical impulses—in left back of my head. Tylenol seems to have quieted them but I so seldom get headaches that I am a little worried.
However, that aside yesterday was a wonderful day of healing. Went to the service at the Congregational church. The pastor is really good news. I find I cry at first, at Bach on the organ, at prayers. By the end, I feel very peaceful and optimistic. Coffee after and a few hellos to people. A way to be a part of the community. A way to feel I am not alone in my worries. A young woman rose to her feet and asked for prayers for the twenty-six men and women of her husband’s unit who have just been deployed to Southeast Asia. It all puts my little battle here in perspective.
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Removing the Drains, 5 February 2003
Thursday, 6 February 2003 The drains came out! Oh glory be—Yesterday— Annabel was with me and a flood of tears erupted from me just as the drains came out and a small flood poured from the holes under my arm…
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On the Subway, 10 February 2003
Tuesday, 11 February 2003 After big letdown of yesterday—no chemo, possible infection, taking Cipro—snow falling, talking to Brenda about her experiences, getting depressed and a bit sorry for myself. Snow falling, falling—chest hot—itchy. Concert at Carnegie Hall—falling asleep in second act—mind racing heart sad lonely—nervous a bit afraid…ALL OF THAT—today I feel much brighter more energy perhaps I was getting infected.
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Haircut, 11 February 2003
Sunday, 16 February 2003 Early, candles…tea…Joan Baez. Just had a good talk with Corin. Yesterday’s peace marches—huge and extraordinary but he explained why the war will happen—Last night dins at Ben and Niva’s—Delicious—I have my moments of such sadness. They hit me quite suddenly. My loss of innocence. The innocence that made me feel that cancer couldn’t happen to me. Tomorrow, at last, I start chemo. It was one month ago that I had my surgery. Jan 16th. Dec 13th the day I knew. I am liking my short hair. Sorry to see it go in a couple of weeks.
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Stretch, 12 February 2003
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First Chemo, 17 February 2003
Monday 17 February 2003—THE DAY The new phase. #1 chemo today plus the biggest blizzard! Annabel and I made it to the hospital in spite of HUGE snow. When we got there we had to wait because some of the staff hadn’t made it in yet. I wasn’t nervous. It was OK. It didn’t hurt and I played Joshua Bell’s “Poeme” album as the needle went into my hand. Annabel was with me. My beloved Annabel. Bought a bathing suit and hat so that I could swim with her in Brooklyn. So far not sick. David brought me a lovely wig. Looks great. I’ve taken the Adivan—anti-anxiety. It’s supposed to make me groggy—Hope to have a big sleep.
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Blizzard, 17 February 2003
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At the Pool, 19 February 2003
Tuesday, 18 February 2003 And Doctor Theatre starts today with “The Exonerated”. Woke 5:15ish feeling terrific. That slight heady feeling gone. Excited about starting work—Having a schedule. I’m feeling very positive this morning. Tea, candles and Nigel Kennedy playing. I feel that my treatment will work. I have faith. I am so lucky to know what all this side of life is.
Tuesday, 4 March 2003 Had my second chemo yesterday. Annabel was with me. A nice new nurse called Churly…My scalp reminds me of the imminent fall. Quite a few of my white hairs at the front are breaking and falling. I think the rest will go this week according to Churly.
11am Just had my shower. More hair coming out.
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Shaving Her Head, 7 March 2003
Friday, 7 March 2003 Lynn: OK Annabel: It’s gonna be OK. L: I know, I know it will….When it comes back, it’ll be like a new life won’t it? A: Yeah. L: (takes wig off and begins to cry) A: It’s OK. It’s OK Mom. It’s OK. L: I don’t know why it’s so hard, angel. I don’t know why. A: Because you don’t feel like yourself. L: I know. That’s it. I think. It’s true. A: You’re still you. L: I know my darling. Thank you for all you do for me. And for your love. A: You’re still beautiful. L: Thank you. (puts wig down by sink). OK. Put that there, shall I? A: Yeah.
A: See, its better. Don’t you feel… L: Much better. It was the, the patchy pieces that I couldn’t bear. And particularly the feel of it in my hands. A: Mmmm. L: When its coming off in the shower, it’s, it’s like, you can’t, it’s like your whole self is falling apart. It’s just…this is better. This will be much better. I can handle this better. Better. It’s gonna be a lot better. It won’t be gross. The patchy stage makes you look like a, I don’t know, like you’re disintegrating or something. You know. Whereas just clean isn’t so bad. I mean, I can get used to that. I’ve seen some people at the hospital wearing a scarf and they look fantastic, actually. They look really classy. I think I have to discover many, many cute things to do so thatI feel cute. I feel horribly uncute right now.
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The Wig, 9 March 2003
Saturday, 8 March 2003—I’m sixty! After that upbeat entry yesterday, I got in the shower and my hair really began pouring out. I cried and cried and cried. The feel of it dead in my hands. The bare ridges on my scalp. In spite of it, pulled myself together for a very good rehearsal, then back to the apartment to meet Annabel. We did the train to the country. She went and got the clippers from David and Jeff and we proceeded with the hair thing. Very strange and emotional. So touched and glad that it is Annabel doing it. Seems like a very special mother/daughter thing. The clippers got it very short but you could see the totally bare places still. So then she shaved my head. It does feel so much better. I really don’t like my look very much but it feels clean at least. Not that sick, dead feel. I wore one of my soft little cotton hats in bed because my head felt cold. And, without drugs, slept from 10:30 pm to 6:38am. A brief wake-up for a pee and to turn the heat up but I feel so much more myself. That was the thing—I said to Annabel, “Why is this so hard? Why am I so upset about it? Its just hair and it will be back?” She said,“Because you don’t feel like yourself.” True.
I have a nice little stash of presents to open, which will be fun. I’ll do it over breakfast with my angel girl. The sun is out—the snow is deep deep. This week eight more inches fell. The threat of the Iraq war sits in the back of my head bothering me but for today, I’ll just live the day.
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Injections in Bed, 9 March 2003
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Balloons, 9 March 2003
Monday, 10 March 2003 The birthday was wonderful. To live in my memory of all those weird, emotional, happy, strange times that have happened to me in the new life.
In the afternoon, while Annabel did the tables, I napped then dressed in my Blue fish outfit. Black velvet with see-through skirt. My shaved head still feeling awkward. Popped on the “Raquel” wig, did makeup and felt a lot better. Fires lit, candles burning. Niva came to get dinner going—all I had to do was revel in being in my home with my loves.
Yesterday, Sunday—The second gloriously sunny day in a row. Then I went to church. Once again pastor Melinda somehow managed to come up with the sermon that I most needed to hear. About holding anger towards someone. About forgiving. Forgetting. I really like her and really like this church. It’s a wonderful haven for me. I don’t know whether I’ve found God and Jesus yet. But the comfort of shared prayer and company and singing and praying and focusing is healing and nourishing.
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Birthday Cake, 9 March 2003
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In the Sun, 5 April 2003 Tuesday, 25 March 2003 I need to get my piles and papers and records under control. Because having cancer and surgery and treatment seems to leave one out of control. So I have this need to order and control what is controllable around me.
Friday morning, 28 March 2003 The fire is crackling—sun is out. Buds on the trees. Timmy Williams the farmer has brought his cows and calves back. So the Saddle Ridge fields are occupied again.
It’s all about order, I’ve decided. The pleasure I get and the sense of my life in place, amidst the things that I can’t control. Like finding a big lump in my otherwise healthy body. As I do things like fold my napkins into my linen closet. Or leaving clean clothes in my closet. Logs stacked. Dishes clean. Garbage out. Cats fed. Their hallway neat. It all gives me the warmest satisfaction.
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Tea with Rachel, 27 March 2003
Tuesday morning, 8 April 2003 Early early candles, fire, tea, Illyria Saw darling Mum yesterday. At first, for an instant she didn’t know it was me. Then she said “It’s my Lynn!” I sat opposite her and we had tea and she dozed. But at one point, I put my hand on her knee, my right hand, and she began stroking my arm. Pushing my sleeve up. Sort of massaging it all the way up very gently. The snow began to fall and I headed home.
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Backstage, 20 April 2003
Friday, 2 May 2003 Waiting—midway between Lynn and Miss Fozzard. Still can’t quite come to terms with me and cancer. How? Where is it? Is it gone? Is it hiding? I’m not ready to go. I’ve too much I want to do. Does everyone in my situation feel that? I’m longing to feel pretty again. To lose a little of my extra weight. About seven pounds. But sometimes the one thing I can feel secure about and sure of is that a meal or a snack will make me feel better. Feel whole. Filling the empty strange place inside me. I want my hair to come back. No sign so far. I think when I’ve got hair my missing boob won’t seem so much. It’s the double whammy that hits me when I see myself in the mirror.
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Dressing Room Mirror, 20 April 2003 Sunday, 11 May 2003 Illyria, Mother’s Day Yesterday I went online to dog adoption places. I’m going to see a doggie tomorrow. I feel I need that healing presence. A doggie who needs a walk to get me out and literally out of myself.
Chemo #7 tomorrow. I’m getting there. Feels like plowing a field. Just point the horse straight and keep on. Don’t look too far to left or right or the line will be crooked. But what I do look at is the wonder of Spring/Summer that is upon us. No hair still. I’m searching for signs with my magnifying mirror. I’m hoping it will surprise me just like the trees and flowering ground cover here at my house.
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Rachel’s Last Day, 23 May 2003
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Funeral, 29 May 2003
Sunday, 25 May 2003, 3:20am-ish How to get it all down in order. How to surface through the weight of the tears still sitting in my eyes, behind my eyes.
After my show Friday night and hellos to friends, I had some wine and uncharacteristically, turned all my phones off. When I woke yesterday morning it was with this feeling that the phone had been going and that it was Mum. Vanessa’s message. “Our darling has gone.” 1:20am Saturday May 24th.
We plan for the funeral to be Thursday at 11am.The day after her birthday. She would have been ninety-three. I said to Vanessa yesterday, “I’m so glad she never knew about me. Never knew about cancer. She would stroke my hair (wig) and say how pretty it was.”
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Mourning, 23 May 2003
Tuesday, 17 June 2003 Vanessa sleeps downstairs and I look back at yesterday and last night as one of the very happiest ever. We've talked and gossiped and recollected and it's been total heaven.
Health wise, I feel so good and don't look forward to the possible side effects of radiation (i.e. feeling tired again when I have begun to feel so much myself.)
Life is good. Please dear God, dear life, I'm being demanding, but let me please have more. Let me not have to cut it short. More time please, to love, to learn, to act, to write, to enjoy my family. Please.
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Radiation Table, 17 June 2003
Wednesday, 18 June 2003 So here is what happened. Came with Annabel yesterday for what was going to be the dry run radiation but they decided to go ahead and treat me anyway. First though, I had to lay still for over an hour. In my cast. At first it’s fine but then the fingers of my right hand go dead. Then Annabel rubs it. Much better but now my arm, then neck, then head turned to one side, begin to really really hurt. Mustn’t move. The technicians purposefully stride in and out. Putting in film, moving the big machine. Each time they leave, the radioactive proof door closes automatically. I’m alone in there with a loud machine. They can see me on a monitor, but I am alone. Annabel of course has to also leave the room. Whoever designed the treatment rooms has thoughtfully painted flowers on the ceiling. It’s all very high tech, but they have definitely tried their best to make it patient friendly. And the people are really nice.
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Afternoon Nap, 18 July 2003
Saturday, 12 July 2003 Illyria The countdown is underway for the hospital. I’m so nearly there. Just seven more times on the machine. This coming week and then the Monday and Tuesday of shows and holiday—Vacation at home. Time to fix my house. Go to flea markets, play with the kids, go to the lake. Have dinner parties perhaps. Just relax. Just live.
At the theatre My hair is really growing back—it’s not just white, the browny salt and pepper is coming too. It feels so great to touch it. To run my hands over it. To feel the swirls, the way it grows—My brows seem to be gone gone gone but I can see a faint fuzz where they used to be.
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In the Pool, 23 June 2003
Monday, 23 June 2003 I think I will shave my legs today. I have long hairs! Very fine and white, but hairs! It will actually feel good to do it.A return to my old self. But will the old one ever be right back. I don’t see how it can—or rather she can. The me I was when I bought my house. The carefree me. The happy happy me. I can be happy again, indeed I have been and often am, but I will always have the threat hanging there.
Saturday, 28 June 2003 Illyria The sweltering heat of the last few days has cooled off and I have had two very happy days—well, actually its still only 9am but it feels like two days.
Suddenly I feel less fearful. What will be will be. The fear of early death seems lifted. I feel good. I feel happy. My nine radiations are beginning to look a little red—but really not all that bad. It’s easy to close my eyes under the machines and go somewhere else inside myself. I’m not on the table. I’m not being nuked, I’m off with my loved ones. My ability to do this has grown during this funny old journey. By the side of the stage each performance at Talking Heads, my ghosts visit. Dad, Mum, Nanny, Vanessa, Corin, Robert Stephens, Noel Coward. They send me out there calm and ready.
Tuesday, 1 July 2003 A thought while on the radiation table this morning. Having cancer treatment is LIFE AFFIRMING. I am now truly living in the moment.Wishing nothing away in terms of time. Not leaping forward, just living and noticing everything.
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Flowers for the Nurses, 22 July 2003
Thursday, 24 July 2003 For the first time in weeks almost luxuriated in the pleasure of having the morning stretch in front of me. No hospital. No rushing for the subway at 9:30am.
And my hair. It’s so very soft and it’s pretty and I think when my holiday is over I shall take off my wig for good. I can’t stop playing with it. Sitting in the dressing room stroking it. Examining it in my magnifying mirror.
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On the Hammock with Vanessa, 11 August 2003
Saturday, 9 August 2003-My Vacation Vanessa is going to commute next week and come and stay with me a couple of nights….
It’s humid again today—there was more rain in the night, but yesterday was a golden afternoon. I think I’m the nearest I’ve ever been in my life to feeling complete. Cancer has given me a certain freedom. Odd but true.
Monday, 11 August 2003 So it was a perfect day—Up early to get Annabel to the train for work. Back home—light by now. Sort through closet and underwear. Discard for thrift shop underwire bras—bras for two boobs. “What are you going to do?” asked Joely about reconstruction. I said I wasn’t going to although I still had the option. But in truth I think it’s about accepting in myself the changes that have taken place in my life. Battle scars? I had this vision of altering oneself—cutting oneself, not worthy, not beautiful unless…and I’m thinking, as I sit on my porch with candles and wine—no. My lesson to learn through my long-ago eating disorder, through my cancer, my acting, my life, my loss of youth, my lesson is that the essential core of me is right here—unadorned, single breasted—that’s a way to look at it.
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Miss Fozzard in the Mirror, 20 August 2003
Wednesday, 27 August 2003 It’s almost surreal now. A dream of something that happened to me. That strange druggy feeling during the chemo. The sadness as I’d look in the mirror at my bald head, my slightly misshapen face—The days when I couldn’t believe really that I’d be myself again. And all along Talking Heads to come downtown for. I’ve just finished my makeup and hair and it’s Miss Fozzard looking back at me from the mirror.
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Growing Back, 12 November 2003
Wednesday, 3 September 2003 Back at the hospital for my routine gyno check. Coming in the elevator people looked very sick. Really fragile—weary—scared. Made me feel a little scared too. To be back.
These few weeks with no treatment have been heaven. As though I maybe dreamed all this. But of course I didn’t. Its not a dream and all around me people seem to have it.
Wednesday, 12 November 2003 Had my four-month check up yesterday and all is well. My face feels relaxed and peaceful. My scar squeezes, but that tells me I am alive.
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One Year Later, 26 December 2003
Friday, 12 December 2003 One Year Survivor One year ago today, I found my lump. One full year of fear and joy and courage and unfettered love of (or do I also mean for) MY HEAVEN.
Friday, 26 December 2003 I have found a quieter place within myself—the quiet pleasures of the morning with my tea, my dog, my candles—the quiet acceptance perhaps of my new self. The surgery and treatment did cut and burn away the remnants of the impatient, insecure me—The me who would find fault with work situations, wanting to put the world right from my point of view.
The year is winding to a close—my big eye opening year.
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Survivor, 10 August 2003
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Doctor Theatre: Last Performance of Nightingale, 13 December 2009
A few days before Christmas in 2002, my mother shared the news that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Having lived with the impression that cancer was a death sentence, I was devastated. I began to imagine what she would look like without hair and ...