(CNN) - The first time I met Sonna was quite by accident. In the fall of 2012 I was invited to a reception by a local artist. As I entered the room and roamed through the crowd I saw Sue, a co-worker of mine. I walked over to greet her and chatted briefly about the day. Also at the table was her friend Sonna, who sat quietly, looking up and smiling occasionally. Sue left the table and waived in the distance, motioning to me to strike up a conversation. I introduced myself and asked Sonna if she knew the artist at the reception. She said, “No, actually Sue had “dragged” me to the event for something to do for the evening.” What started as a casual conversation turned into a deeply personal story which took a year to tell- a story affecting millions of women. This is Sonna’s story- The Face of a Cancer Survivor.
As I sat and talked with Sonna, I didn’t realize how touching her story would become. She spoke about going through several divorces, getting remarried, and dealing with the challenges her son was going through. As Sonna encountered a period of unbearable stress, she received news that she was totally unprepared for. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she told her story, I was struck how comfortable she was recollecting her life’s ups and downs. It was as though she wanted to tell her story, and her most inner thoughts she had not uttered to anyone before. The brief hour of conversation seemed more like a few minutes. I suggested that she consider doing an interview, sharing her story with the world through a CNN iReport.
Six months would elapse before we would reconnect. When I finally got a hold of Sonna on the phone, she immediately said, “I was just thinking about doing that interview we had talked about months earlier.” And with that, the story on the back shelf was one step closer to becoming a reality.
Sonna came to the studio for an in-depth interview and a photojournalistic essay. As we talked, we filmed the entire interview for a mini documentary for the future. For this interview we wanted to focus on a personal conversation between her and myself, with no distractions. It would be a difficult story for her to tell, so taking great care in guiding her during the interview was particularly important.
The interview started covering her early years. Growing up Sonna was like any other kid- full of life and living life to its fullest. As Sonna remembers, “I was a pretty healthy kid, except when she was in cast or getting stitches. My mom would say I was kind of Tom-boy.” In high school she was a cheerleader and after graduation went on to beauty school. She married at an early age, and gave birth to her son Zach. Her life seemed to be going great. That would quickly change.
In 2008, Sonna’s marriage began to fall apart. At the same time, her son was in the throes of a difficult drug addiction. It was a particularly stressful time in both of their lives. Then in July 2009, Sonna received a phone call from her clinic as a follow up to a routine mammogram. She recounted, “It was difficult to get the news over the phone and that I had to come back in. This can’t be right. There must be some mistake.” Sonna drove to clinic to hear the news directly from her doctor. She had breast cancer.
Sonna tried to process what she had heard. She quickly searched the Internet for anything she could find to better grasp what breast cancer meant to her. She tried to tell her family and friends as best she could, fighting through the tears and her own fears.
As Sonna fought through her personal battle with cancer, her son Zach was dealing with his own issues- drug addiction. It was drugs that landed him in jail, and as Sonna clearly remembers, he had hit “rock bottom.” She remembered, “I always told my son never to call me from jail.” After some personal soul searching, Zach begged to be put into rehab. Sonna and her son Zach were faced with separate challenges, both on their own long roads towards healing and recovery.
Surgery was quickly scheduled to remove her cancer, which had also affected lymph nodes. Sonna would eventually undergo over 30 radiation treatments. She remembered how difficult it was to tell her parents and her son about her cancer. For Sonna lamented, “My lowest point was thinking about the things I wouldn’t be able to finish and the things I am going to take care of. My son was going through a very difficult time and there would be no one to take care of him.”
Sonna said, “I remembered being in bed at night alone, and I would be mentally writing my own obituary, and would get up and take notes and making sure things were not left out. I kept thinking if I could just hang on to take care of some of these things….it was hard.” Sonna would often think of her son and parents. She questioned, “Who is going to take care of my son, who is going to take care of my parents when they are older. If I leave this world there are some things left undone, and there is nobody to do it.” As Sonna continued, she began to cry. She paused and said, “It was very, very difficult.”
As she spoke, the tears continued to stream down her face as she struggled to find the right words. For Sonna, family and friends are what helped her get through this tragedy in her life. I could sense how difficult it was for Sonna to relive this moment. Talking was almost therapeutic for her.
Sonna talked about how she has changed and how she had conquered her cancer. Many women have. After we concluded the interview, we took a series of images to help others personally connect with what Sonna has endured. When you look at her face, you may not see the pain she has undergone, both mentally and physically. Her hands are as expressive as her eyes. On her bracelet, the letter Z stands for her son Zach. It helps her remember him every day.
The highest point for Sonna was the final day of her radiation. After 33 treatments the cancer center held a party for her. “I got to ring this bell, and run a lap around the cancer center. All my friends were there, my family was there, we had cake….and I thought, I’m going to kick this, and I am going to make it …the looks on everyone’s faces was just overwhelming…… the joy, the happiness. I did it. I am going to make it. I am truly going to make it… and I did.”
The face of a cancer survivor is not so easy to recognize. When people look at Sonna, they see a beautiful woman with an engaging and vivacious personality. The casual observer doesn’t have the slightest indication of what she has conquered -like so many other cancer survivors.
For Sonna, the one message she wanted to give women was to “talk to people… there is always someone that has gone through it, who has dealt with what you are going through. Talk to people, bring it out, and don’t keep it a secret. Don’t keep things inside. Be open, keep your faith, and always, always think positive because someone will help you get through it.”
As we concluded the photo session Sonna stood up, and looked straight at me and said, “You know, I have told you things that I have never told anyone else. The things I told you were deep within me and I feel a weight has been released from my shoulders.” And with that we hugged, and she was on her way. Her eyes were puffy and red from crying, but at that moment, she was as beautiful as the first image we had shot. What had been hidden felt so deeply had been released. Breast cancer doesn’t affect some women, but rather it can affect any woman. The face of a cancer survivor can be hidden by beauty, but is no less traumatic or devastating. The next time you here about someone afflicted with cancer, think of Sonna’s story. Talking about your personal experience and sharing it may be the best medicine for yourself and for so many others. The face of breast cancer is all around us. Just listen to their stories.
Copyright © 2013 CNN. All Rights Reserved
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