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At museum photo exhibit, survivors declare war on breast cancer ‘bully’

Breast Cancer1

Cancer survivor and WJSU-FM general manager Gina Carter-Simmers, center, celebrates with supporters Franshell Fort, left, and Melissa Dean.

L.A. BYLINE SM

This image of Yana Knight hangs in the museum. It displays her dragonfly tattoo as a symbol for embracing change and seeing it as “positive and freeing.” (Photo by Spencer L. McClenty)

This image of Yana Knight hangs in the museum. It displays her dragonfly tattoo as a symbol for embracing change and seeing it as “positive and freeing.” The title of this photo is “Dragonfly Psalm.” (Photo by Spencer L. McClenty)

Nearly 20 breast cancer survivors assembled inside the Mississippi Museum of Art on Thursday to help unveil a stunning photo exhibit with the oxymoronic title “The Beauty of Cancer” and to rebuke a disease they say has failed to make them ugly.

A standing-room only crowd listened in awe as these special women expressed reverence to God for the ability to endure years – even decades – of battles against a menacing foe.

OVER several months, some of the guests of honor courageously allowed more than a half-dozen photographers and videographers to shadow them and capture their scars after mastectomies and other treatments.

Now, those haunting images line the walls of the museum, piercing the hearts and tugging the emotions of family, friends and visitors.

While some photographs reveal brittle nails and discolored hands from chemotherapy and radiation burns, others show women beautifully attired with no visible signs of battle scars from medical procedures.

WJSU-FM general manager Gina Carter-Simmers is the creator of the exhibit. The idea derived in 2016 after she  learned she had an aggressive form of Stage 3 triple-negative breast cancer.

Ultimately, she would undergo a double mastectomy. Her goal for the exhibit is to scare women of all races and nationalities to get regular mammograms and conduct self-exams each month.

Also, Carter-Simmers wants to reduce the mortality rate in Mississippi and especially raise awareness about the alarming number of deaths of African-American women.

“The beauty of cancer is that it’s curable when detected early,” she said.

On the night of the exhibit’s opening, the brave survivors stood in solidarity as they launched a verbal assault on cancer.

Mellody Haynes, kickboxing chemotherapy, champions over breast cancer in this photo image on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art. (Photo by Spencer L. McClenty)

Mellody Haynes, kickboxing chemotherapy, champions over breast cancer in this photo image on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art. The title of this photo is “Chemo Don’t Scare Me!” (Photo by Spencer L. McClenty)

AMONG the many comments from those who have survived breast cancer:

  • Vernessa Cheatham, a four-year survivor: “Cancer tried to make me ugly. It made me smaller, but it didn’t hurt my womanhood. It made them stand taller.”
  • Belinda J. Dixon, diagnosed in 2016: “We kicked cancer in the butt.”
  • Dr. Velvelyn B. Foster, a 2½-year survivor: “You tried to take my femininity. You tried to make me ugly. But look at me now.”
  • Rebecca Foust, diagnosed in 2016: “You took my grandmother. Why did you take my best friends? All you are is a big old bully. And, you know what? I ain’t scared. Seventeen years I fought you twice. I’m stronger, and I believe you have given me the resolve to go forward. So, cancer, you’re not going to make me ugly.”
  • Kiwana Thomas Gayden, diagnosed in 2016: “Cancer, you tried to make me ugly. But I’m not going to let you. Every time I hit the gym, I make that chemo fat cry. I’m getting my body back, and getting it ready to continue to fight for those who aren’t here anymore.” 
  • The Mississippi Museum of Art houses dozens of images of breast cancer survivors that will be on display through Oct. 29.

    The Mississippi Museum of Art houses dozens of images of breast cancer survivors that will be on display through Oct. 29.

    Jackie Hampton, a 17-year survivor: “I wanted to ask the question ‘why me?’ But instead I asked the question ‘why not me?’ This cancer has … made my belief in God stronger.”

  • Lori Hill, diagnosed in 2016: “You thought you had me beat on those nights when I cried all alone in the dark because I didn’t want my family to see all the pain and brokenness that I felt. But guess what? My God is bigger than you. And he made a stronger, wiser, more courageous woman out of me.”
  • Molly May, diagnosed at age 19: “You thought that you would break the self-esteem of a 19-year-old girl even though she watched her mom survive for the last 11 years. But you didn’t. You thought that I would be scared to wear a swimsuit whether it be onstage or on the beach. But I’m not. And I’m not scared to find a significant other … because I know my God will send someone who thinks my scars are the most beautiful part of my life.”
  • Photographer Spencer L. McClenty recognizes his peers who also captured the beauty of cancer survivors.

    Photographer Spencer L. McClenty recognizes his peers who also captured the beauty of cancer survivors.

    Kim Waddy, diagnosed in 2015: “Cancer, you tried to make me ugly while I was sitting in the waiting room for my chemotherapy. You said, ‘You’ve got a bald head; you don’t have any eyebrows; and where are you eyelashes?’ … You left me with a breast that is smaller … and an arm that’s larger. But that’s OK because I serve a God who is bigger, badder and stronger than any cancer.”

  • Donna Touchton Walters, diagnosed in 2014: “You tried to take some Southern charm. Didn’t happen. You tried to take my Southern wit. You tried to take some Southern grace. Not a bit of that worked for you. … You put scars on my back, scars on my chest. But you will never have scars on my heart. Therefore, cancer, you will never make me ugly.”

Gina Carter-Simmers, diagnosed in 2016: “Cancer, I know it was your intention to have me hate God for allowing me to go through so much emotional and physical pain. But I have learned that the worst time of my life is the best time of my life. And I have lived. Lord knows I have lived. I have loved, and I’ve laughed harder as a result of you. Cancer, you couldn’t make none of this ugly because we are ‘The Beauty of Cancer.’ ”

The museum exhibit will be on display until Oct. 29. 

Survivors and supporters assembled inside the museum to celebrate the powerful exhibition of “The Beauty of Cancer.”

Survivors and supporters assembled inside the museum to celebrate the powerful exhibition of “The Beauty of Cancer.”

(Exhibit photographers: Cordell Carter, Gerard Howard, Spencer McClenty, Kentrice Rush, Charles Smith and Kari Thomas. Other contributors: Renee Reedy and Sylvia Watley)