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When thinking about people with cancer, the images that first come to mind are usually dark, sad and depressing. But that's not what photographer Linda McCarthy sees. With her "Survivors" project, her goal was to put a face on breast cancer, photographing women who survived or are being treated for the disease.

"I wanted to photograph them as whole women not the parts that they see of themselves,” she explained. “So, I didn't want scars, I didn't want anything like that. I wanted them to see how beautiful they are. They are survivors, they change their outlook on life and say, 'Yes, this is me, and I'm a survivor.' So, you see the transformation going on while I photograph them."

Linda McCarthy's photo of Cheryl Listman, like the
Linda McCarthy's photo of Cheryl Listman, like the other photographs in the Survivors project, includes a life-affirming phrase.

One of the survivors is Cheryl Listman. The single mother was diagnosed with stage 2-B breast cancer in 2013, and told she had a 40 percent chance of survival. Thinking about her two kids made her determined to not give up and to keep fighting the disease.

The Survivors photography project fit nicely with her attitude.

"I work with women, I help educate women who are going through the journey and just help them navigate through the medical side of it,” Listman said. “When she (Linda McCarthy) asked me, I thought, 'Well, maybe it's just another impact that I could have on women.' And then also I would be able to look back and see how far I came."

Focusing on the whole woman

The idea of featuring breast cancer survivors came to McCarthy when she was searching for a ballerina to photograph for her portfolio.

"I was introduced to Maggie, who is known as the Bald Ballerina,” she recalled. “She was diagnosed at the age of 23 with stage-4 metastatic breast cancer. So, I met her and asked if I could photograph her, not as a ballerina, but as a beautiful girl who happens to have breast cancer."

Maggie Kudirka, the "Bald Ballerina," who travels
Maggie Kudirka, the "Bald Ballerina," who travels the country educating young dancers and adults about metastatic breast cancer, inspired Linda McCarthy's Survivors photography project.

Through the lens of her camera, McCarthy says she has always sought to capture the spirit and essence of her subjects.

To do that, McCarthy offered each of the participants a consultation session. During that time, they opened up and talked about themselves, giving her a chance to get to know them.

The women were also given a makeover. By the end of the session with makeup artist Victoria Ronan, many were surprised — and delighted.

"In some cases, it's been a very long time since they had makeup on, it's been a very long time since they had done something for themselves,” Ronan said. "I had a lot of women look in the mirror and just start tearing up. They couldn't believe how beautiful I've made them look."

When fighting breast cancer, Listman said, it's helpful to feel beautiful.

"It's very important because when you go through a horrific journey and treatment, you don't feel beautiful,” Listman explained. “There is a lot of things done to your body physically, there is a lot of things done to you emotionally, mentally, things that you will never forget that are not pretty. So, when you get to that point in your journey, you feel like a woman again, you feel beautiful, you feel like you've accomplished the mission."