“I have friends who are dying”

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Navy veteran Kate Hendricks Thomas was one of five new portraits unveiled Saturday, October 1, 2022 at the Military Women’s Memorial as part of The Athena Division, a military chapter of photographer Charise Isis’ The Grace Project. The portraits are of veteran women affected by breast cancer. (Sara Samora/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Photographer Charise Isis said her latest exhibit featuring portraits of female veterans affected by breast cancer was inspired by her friend, Army veteran Donna Guinn Kaufman.

Kaufman gave Isis the impetus when she told her about a 2009 Department of Defense study that found female active duty personnel had a 20-40% breast cancer incidence rate. higher than the public.

“She said to me, … ‘I have friends who are dying, and I want to find out this information so women serving in the military can defend themselves,’ Isis said.

The photographer decided to expand her Grace project, which features portraits of women who have had mastectomies or lumpectomies due to breast cancer, to include a chapter on military and veteran women.

Some of the resulting photos are now on display at the Military Women’s Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, and Isis said she hopes it will raise awareness of the disease. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the exhibit will be on display until Sunday.

Kaufman also helped Isis round up female veterans to participate in the project. In 2015, Isis took the first 20 portraits of the Athena Division, named after the Greek goddess of war, which are on display at the memorial and feature 50 photographs. Some of the portraits were also taken at the Military Women’s Memorial.

“It was emotional for these women because breast cancer is a disease hidden under your clothes. You don’t walk around with your scars,” Isis said. “But breast cancer, for the most part, is a kind of amputation. These women are not known for their scars, but [Military Women’s Memorial]take off their shirts and be seen for the scars that lie under their clothes, then be recognized for their service as well [at the memorial].”

Kaufman died in May 2020 after battling breast cancer.

A May 2021 study from the National Library of Medicine reported that female veterans were nearly three times more likely to develop invasive breast cancer than the rest of the population. The study also reported that breast cancer cases tripled in the Department of Veterans Affairs from 1995 to 2012. The study also indicated that breast cancer is the leading cancer affecting female veterans, with data that implicated that the increases were based on service-related exposures.

The National Breast Cancer Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization focused on helping women affected by breast cancer, reported that on average, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every two minutes in the United States. -United. Additionally, breast cancer death rates are 40% higher among black women than among white women.

Air Force veteran Sheila Johnson has a portrait featured in The Athena Division. She was still on active duty when she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer on December 2, 2009. Johnson underwent a mastectomy with reconstructive surgery.

“I thought it would be a great way to get veteran voices heard, which is why I’m passionate about it,” she said. “I’m passionate about people knowing that the military has breast cancer.”

Although Johnson’s mother died of breast cancer a few years ago, she said she didn’t know much about the disease.

“I wish I had known about genetic testing,” Johnson said. “These are things [in] the army that we have to talk about, that [we] need to have open conversations about it.”

Almost 13 years later, she is still battling the disease, but she credits the research for keeping her alive. She also advocates for more money for research.

“I’m a product of research,” Johnson said. “I’ve been in a clinical trial for three and a half years and I want people to have the same experience, especially veterans. Especially all women diagnosed with breast cancer. [Just] because I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer does not mean a life sentence, [it] doesn’t mean it’s over.”

Army veteran Tamekiah Aguirre had her picture taken in July. Aguirre had followed Isis’ Grace Project for a few years before her breast cancer diagnosis in September 2020.

She had a lump in her breast. Aguirre had a lumpectomy and she said her doctor was able to catch it all. She then received three and a half weeks of radiation therapy.

When Isis took Aguirre’s photo in July, Aguirre said Isis brought him comfort and ease and made him forget his scars.

“When she photographs you, she’s telling you to think about everything you’ve been through on this trip,” Aguirre said. “But it’s a way for her to get you to accept, not the negative side, it’s the positive side. You take those emotions and you gravitate around those emotions, but in a way of saying at that time , ‘I am here, I am alive, I am blossoming’.

On Saturday, five additional portraits were unveiled, one of which was that of Kate Hendricks Thomas, a Navy veteran who advocated for better health care for veterans exposed to burn hearth toxins.

Thomas fought for years to prove that his cancer resulted from his exposure to toxic combustion fireplaces before the AV recognized the link. At the same time, she advocated for the process to change so other veterans don’t face the same challenges. Thomas died in April at the age of 42.

In June, President Joe Biden signed into law the Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas Supporting Expanded Review for Veterans In Combat Environments Act, also known as the Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas SERVICE Act. The new law expands access to mammograms for female veterans who served in areas with burn sites or other toxic exposures, regardless of age, symptoms or family history.

“[Kaufman] would be so proud for that to happen [at Military Women’s Memorial]”Isis said. “I really hope these photographs and this message get in front of the right eyes so that there is more funding for metastatic breast cancer research. … We must do better [for] our women veterans who serve and who have breast cancer. We have to take care of them.”

Female veterans interested in participating in the Athena Division can request to be photographed at http://the-grace-project.org/.

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