Stories of Hope
Beauty Shown More Than Skin Deep: Survivors With Attitude
Article date: October 31, 2002
The pictures are about an attitude — an attitude about turning a negative into a positive. And about inner beauty, strength, femininity, and sexuality.
Breast Cancer Survivor Photographs Spirit And Strength
When Jean Karotkin of Dallas was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1988 at the age of 38, she couldn't have imagined a more improbable gift. But cancer changed her into a late-bloomer seizing life's offerings.
"If it weren't for cancer," she said, "I wouldn't have made the changes in my life that gave me the momentum and the courage to do things I never would have done."
Since then she has focused on other breast cancer survivors with the same kind of attitude through her camera.
Getting On With Life
At the time of her diagnosis, Karotkin was in a difficult marriage and had low self-esteem. She had gotten her first mammogram at the insistence of her mother, who had had breast cancer and a double mastectomy (removal of both breasts). She had four other close relatives who also had the disease.
Karotkin's mammogram showed calcifications. A biopsy confirmed a small confined tumor, a slow-growing malignancy. Within 10 days she gave her daughter her 11th birthday party and had a mastectomy just before Thanksgiving. Reconstructive surgery was done the next month.
Within those 10 days she was thinking, "Oh, I need to get a will, I'm going to die." She couldn't think positively at first.
But after surgery she was told she didn't need any more treatment — no chemo, no radiation. And she thought, "Thank God, I can get on with my life."
Within four months following reconstructive surgery, she started a chocolate business with a friend of hers, which gave her something positive to look forward to. She also decided to get a divorce.
By the time she sold the business two years later, Karotkin had started to take photography classes while working part-time and raising her daughter.
She had seen a photograph of a daring self-portrait of a Russian artist with breast cancer, showing her scars. Karotkin was moved by the dramatic, beautiful, but "very in-your-face" image.
The picture got her thinking about women's femininity and sexuality and the challenges all women go through, especially cancer survivors. Karotkin wanted to show the strength, courage, and beauty of women with breast cancer.
She tried to get other photographers to shoot the pictures, but years passed, and nothing came of it. Meanwhile, she took more photography courses.
Photographer With An Attitude
In 1997 Karotkin had seen her daughter off to college and was an empty-nester. She was feeling depressed. But as fate would have it, she fell at work and fractured her femur (thigh bone). It took her six months to recuperate.
She was hobbling on crutches when a photographer friend offered her the use of her studio and camera for the project that she had been carrying around in her heart and mind for years.
"I had an idea how I wanted to photograph the women for my project," she said. "And it wasn't about hair, makeup, or clothing."
Karotkin knew the first woman she wanted to photograph and just how she wanted to photograph her. Dana Ravel, a Latin American art dealer from Austin, was going through stem cell transplant treatment for breast cancer at the time.
"Dana was the strongest, toughest broad I knew," she said.
Ravel had no hair and for the picture was wrapped in a towel. Karotkin gave her a set of boxing gloves. She thought it matched Ravel's fighting spirit. But Ravel didn't like the idea of the gloves at first and said she wasn't doing it. But after the first two rolls of film, Ravel told Karotkin to give her the boxing gloves. She loved the results.
"That was the image that said to me, you can do this, you are on the right track," said Karotkin.
She felt as if there was a guardian angel that kept shoving her in the right direction.
"It was like I was an accident just waiting to happen," said Karotkin. "And so what happened is I got cancer. Cancer is a light bulb that goes off and says, 'you are either going to do what you need to do and let it take you on a journey, or not.' "
It was a wake-up call to get her act together, to do something.
Ravel found Karotkin's next subject to photograph. And after that, word of mouth and serendipity found more than 60 others, including Pamela Vaughn from Dallas, a systems programmer with IBM. Draped in a robe and pearls, Vaughn's spirit illuminates the photograph.
She has photographed actress Gloria Stewart (the elderly survivor in the movie, The Titanic), and Jerri Nielsen, MD, who wrote, Ice Bound: A Doctor's Incredible Battle for Survival at the South Pole.
Karotkin interviews her subjects and carefully selects each one for her attitude and spirit.
She has traveled to New York to photograph the Chinese women of the American Cancer Society breast cancer survivor support group, Joy Luck Club. The journey has taken her to New Mexico, Philadelphia, Denver, North Carolina, and California. "Cancer knows no boundaries," she said.
Her photographs have been featured nationally on the Today Show and in the magazines Oprah and Rosie.
It's her dream to make a book out of these images. The women have inspired Karotkin with their courage and inner beauty.
"These women are such treasures," she said. "The images stand on their own. The pictures are about an attitude — an attitude about turning a negative into a positive. And about inner beauty, strength, femininity, and sexuality."