PARK CITY — Mary Chamberlain was just 36 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. After completing chemotherapy, she was barely more than 100 pounds, her hair was falling out in clumps and, to her dismay, her eyelashes vanished too.
“I really thought I got lucky that (my eyelashes) didn't fall out during chemotherapy … and then all of a sudden within a period of two days, they just all came out. I was feeling pretty low then,” Chamberlain said in an interview with the Deseret News.
It was during this time that Chamberlain got word of Dana Klein’s work at an Image Reborn retreat. Klein is a local photographer from Park City who started Project Shine back in 2012, which in her words is “just women helping women.”
“I like to describe Project Shine (as) giving, creating and inspiring,” Klein said. “I give no-cost makeover photo shoots to women who have been diagnosed (with breast cancer), I create storytelling art with uplifting messages, and hopefully it's going to inspire other survivors when they see these messages of hope and strength and resilience.”
Project Shine was born shortly after Klein witnessed her close friend, Deb Bailey, begin her breast cancer treatment, which resulted in a double mastectomy, hysterectomy and becoming completely bald — not to mention she had recently given birth to her second child.
“I just tried to put myself in her shoes,” Klein explained. “I was worried about how she was feeling internally — the emotional effects of what she’d been through.”
Though Klein didn’t know what it was like to have breast cancer, she did know how to make beautiful images, so she invited Bailey to do a photo shoot with her.
“I brought her to my studio to show her the images and she just broke down in tears because she … didn't look at herself as still being beautiful and feminine because so much has been taken from her,” Klein said.
After seeing how much this meant to Bailey, Klein knew this could play a powerful role in the healing process of other survivors. It was then through word of mouth that Chamberlain and Deb DeKoff, a Park City-based breast cancer survivor and educator, both reached out to Klein and volunteered to be photographed.
For Klein, this project, which is hoping to find a corporate sponsor, is more than helping women feel beautiful on the outside — it's about hearing their stories and healing their emotional scars. With that, Klein ensures that every participant has a word associated with their images that symbolize their experience. Attached to DeKoff’s photos is the word “Free,” which she interprets as meaning “free to live.”
“So often, cancer patients are so wrapped up in the cycle of treatment that we forget to live,” DeKoff told the Deseret News.
“To see myself through Dana's eyes was magical,” she continued. “Her images are powerful and offered a quiet confidence. … Women who have undergone breast cancer surgery, chemo, radiation and adjuvant therapies often feel less than beautiful. The psychological issues are as strong as the physical. The rewarding part was in letting go and trusting in Dana, due to her artistic competency, genuine care and kindness.”
After speaking with Chamberlain, Klein helped her come up with the idea of “Rebirth” as a representation of her journey.
“Even though (I was) shedding things like hair and eyelashes, it was kind of a new beginning, coming out of (my) cocoon and emerging with these beautiful wings again,” Chamberlain said. “They braided my hair in a way that you couldn’t see my bald spots … I just felt like myself again.”
While both DeKoff and Chamberlain currently have no signs of cancer, Chamberlain is especially wary of using the term “in remission.”
“I think the term ‘remission’ is a bit outdated because … it’s a false sense of hope,” Chamberlain said. “I want to be realistic that there is a possibility I could battle this again.”
Despite that difficult reality, it is people like Klein who are essential in helping survivors regain their physical and emotional stability.
“It’s really important for me to sit down and really dive into each woman's story,” Klein said. “I like to talk to those women who don't feel good about themselves, the ones that are a little more hesitant to even get in front of the camera. … It’s really about helping them see themselves in a different light … and the end result when they do see themselves differently is very empowering.”Comment on this story
Both DeKoff and Chamberlain are involved in the breast cancer community. DeKoff has launched herself into breast cancer research work with Project Lead and Chamberlain has found fulfillment in mentoring women who have been recently diagnosed.
“(Recently) I was on the top on Angels Landing and three years ago at this time, I didn’t know if I was going to live or die,” Chamberlain said. “You have to encourage people to get through the challenges that they have because there is life after cancer.”