For One Photographer, Artist And Breast Cancer Survivor, Creativity Speeds Healing
February 13, 2002 at Torrance Memorial was one of Julie Crow’s brightest days. She was there for a life-changing occasion: to give birth to her baby girl.
That same day 10 years later proved to be one of her darkest days, delivering clouds, a dreary chill and another life-changer. Stepping out of the hospital’s Vasek and Anna Maria Polak Breast Diagnostic Center, the mother of three should’ve been celebrating her daughter’s milestone birthday but instead, she’d just been told she had breast cancer. She felt helpless—at the mercy of a disease she couldn’t see.
Weeks later, rushing across the parking lot of South Bay Plastic Surgeons for a first appointment about her pending breast reconstruction, she couldn’t help but zero in on the bold “PAIENT” parking slots. Feeling anything but patient, she was overcome with anger.
“Patience when you feel like you have no control is next to impossible,” Crow says.
Nine months, what’s the biggest lesson learned? “You have to find patience, and part of that is finding a new focus and something you can control.”
For Crow, a photographer, a new focus behind the lens—as well as a renewed interest in art—has been a lifesaver. Soon after diagnosis, Crow picked up her camera and got to work. “PATIENT” parking is one of many shots in the compilation that tells her story. Other images are self-portraits detailing “the good, bad and ugly” of her showdown with the disease.
Putting cancer in its place in this way gives Crow that other “c” word: control. “I have so little control over much of this process—my diagnosis, surgery, treatment. For me, it’s critical to have control of something. I know that cancer will be a part of my life forever and it will change me, but it won’t define or control who I am. It might define some of my work, but not me.”
The “control” theme binds her photo collection. One example: When it was time to start chemotherapy, Crow was in charge—not the chemo. She invited friends over to help dye her blonde hair pink and take turns with the scissors, then the razor.
The tears flowed, of course, but so did the cocktails. After all, this was a ceremony to mark another life-changer. “I wanted to try to have fun with the idea of hair loss, and a cutting ceremony gave me control of that part of the process.”
At the end, a confident Crow posed for the camera to showcase the finished masterpiece: a girly-pink Mohawk that she proudly “rocked,” she says. Delicate and more vulnerable are photos she took of her body just before her double-mastectomy, and just after.
She has lots of ideas for other shoots down the road, beyond her chemo, radiation and the next reconstruction surgery. (Her tumor was removed during the mastectomy, but treatment is currently targeting cancer cells in her lymph nodes; once that is complete, her surgeon will complete reconstruction.)
Crow is excited about a planned series of photos with a lion-tamer theme. She plans to photograph herself bald and incorporate digital images of lions and tigers. They’ll be pink, of course. Determined and strong, she will conquer them.
When the time is right, Crow would like to turn her camera on fellow breast cancer survivors at various stages of the fight as a way to connect her with these women, and the women with each other. She plans to publish the photo-documentary and share with as many as possible the strength that comes from the lowest points in life.
“I see women in the chemo lounge, scared to death,” she says. “They probably don’t realize how strong they are. I want to reach those women and show them bald, beautiful and powerful. I want to show them a visual that helps them understand, ‘Yes, I can do this. I can get through this. Look at all the other women who have.’”
The idea for Crow’s photo-documentary took shape during art classes at Santa Monica College. The former ad sales exec is after a Master of Fine Arts degree and then a new career path—something more creative.
In the meantime, her focus is on her work at home. With photography, art projects as well as her job as an at-home mom, she has little time to think about how she feels. “When you stop thinking about it, you feel better.”
She partially credits her renewed interest in varied art forms to the Adventures in Art creative workshop that she volunteered with at her daughters’ school. A tour through her Torrance home showcases many of her favorite finished pieces, a diverse mix of media and subjects. Adventures in Art encouraged Crow to experiment beyond the lens, and today she can’t help but draw parallels.
While she may be on an unplanned—if not unwanted—adventure, she appreciates that her path is being forged and explored through art. “I know all this is going to lead me somewhere,” she says. “I don’t know where, but I’m open!”
This openness is also a good reminder to pay attention to signs. Exactly one year before diagnosis, Crow dreamed about a woman who would become the subject of one of the most cherished pieces in her collection. She promptly grabbed her brushes and a canvas and got to work on “Nice Melons.” In it, the woman from her dream holds half a sliced cantaloupe over each breast. “When I painted this woman, I had no idea she was me,” she says.
One year later, when Crow turned 50, she revisited the annual health checks that she would need. She knew she would have a mammogram and colonoscopy, too. So she dutifully checked those procedures off her list and moved on. When the breast cancer diagnosis came, she was floored. She had no family history, had felt no lumps.
Her mind went one place first: To “Nice Melons.” She thought, “I’ll have fake melons.”
Immediately at diagnosis, the team at the Torrance Memorial Polak Breast Diagnostic Center came to her side—warm, supportive and helpful. When she told them she wanted to have a double mastectomy—treatment they hadn’t recommended—they were supportive. Gina Rembert, RN, her nurse navigator, guided her through every step—making sure she had her appointments, offering comfort and a shoulder to lean on, giving helpful advice—and soon became a friend.
“Gina was an amazing resource. She handled everything with such grace and made me believe I could get through this. For Gina, I would do anything,” Crow says.
She is inspired beyond words by Evelyn Calip, RN, her peri-op nurse and reconstruction mentor. Calip, founder of the Breast Reconstruction Mentorship Program at Torrance Memorial, is a breast cancer survivor who draws on her own experiences—from diagnosis to a double mastectomy—to be there for women going through the same.
Crow also commends Dr. Steven Fisher with the Association of South Bay Surgeons, who performed her mastectomy, for his calming bedside manner. When he delivered the news post-op that her pathology report hadn’t come back clear, that cancer cells had been found in the lymph nodes, he did so compassionately.
And her plastic surgeon, Dr. Michael Newman with South Bay Plastic Surgeons, was encouraging and positive—easy to talk to.
“All of these professionals were very positive on the worst days of my life,” Crow says. “Losing my breasts was a huge loss, and I went through a long mourning period. But being surrounded by a team of caring people—from the Torrance Memorial team to my friends and even people I didn’t know—saved me. You must have a core group of people around you, because there are really hard moments.”
One self-portrait in Crow’s photo collection has her dressed as Rosie the Riveter, the “We Can Do It” World War II icon representing determined, powerful women in charge. She recently sent a copy to nurses Rembert and Calip. The caption said: “You guys make me feel this way.”
Just like Rosie, Crow’s head scarf is in place; her sleeves are rolled up.
Her muscles are flexed. Her body is strong. Her mind is focused.