“Put your heads together…”
“A little to the left…”
“OK, now smile real big…”
If you’ve ever been in a photo shoot, chances are you’ve heard a photographer guide you through some poses, trying to make you feel comfortable so you can see your best self in the pictures. For many women, a professional photo shoot can be a great way to boost self-confidence. For survivors of breast cancer, it’s also a way to reflect on how far they’ve come in their journey and how strong they’ve become.
“Even though I may have the scars, I’m thankful for the scars, because they molded me into who I am,” said Samantha Mann, a breast cancer previvor (because she had a double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer), and participant in the “To Bless Others” photo shoot.
The Photo Shoot
In late September, 2020, several businesses teamed up to put on a free photo shoot for survivors of breast cancer. Vanessa De La Rosa, owner of the decor business, Jane of All Trades, came up with the idea and suggested it to Danielle Hadley, owner of a photography studio called the Hadley Room.
“We are honored to play a part in blessing, celebrating, and learning from those that have sacrificed in their life in major ways,” Danielle said.
Vanessa produced a pink balloon display, set against the bright white walls of the Hadley Room. This natural-light photography studio is in the loft of Danielle’s home in the Lytle area, and throughout the year it features many themed photo shoots. Danielle reached out to local photographers Shayli Smith and Kelly Turner and invited them to volunteer their services “To Bless Others,” which became the name of the event.
“For me, it wasn’t about the time spent,” Shayli Smith said. “It was more to serve and tell a story through it.”
Shayli has been a portrait, wedding, and lifestyle photographer for two and half years in the Abilene area. For her part of the shoot, she photographed a mother who
had survived breast cancer and her adult daughter.
“Being able to capture that was so powerful,” Shayli said. “I’m very close with my mom, too. It was very humbling to know that every day is a gift from our Lord.”
Beth Smith signed up her mother, Tracey Carrier, for the photo shoot after seeing posts about it on Instagram.
“When your adult daughter asks you to do something with you, you say yes,” Tracey said.
Beth said she knew a photo shoot like that was a little out of Tracey’s comfort zone, but she wanted her mother to have that experience. Shayli tried to make both women feel comfortable in the shoot.
“I was pulling out the natural progression,” Shayli said, “not trying to pose it so much, encouraging them to be themselves and the photos would reveal that.”
Tracey’s journey with cancer began in 2012, five years after her sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Both women were in their 40’s, and their family had a history of breast cancer. Because Tracey’s cancer was caught early, she didn’t have to do chemo or radiation, but opted to do a double mastectomy, because of the family history. With the support of her husband of 23 years, she made the decision to do the aggressive surgery to prevent the cancer from recurring in the future.
Beth was a freshman in high school at the time. She remembered her parents picking her and her brother up from school and taking them to lunch to tell them.
“They told us my mom had breast cancer, and took us back to school,” Beth said. “They tried to keep life normal. Watching, I felt like it gave me a lot of respect for my mom. Her attitude was, ‘I have this, but God is still good.’”
Beth went with her mom to many appointments, including those with the plastic surgeon in Dallas. The surgeon and nurses tried to make her mom laugh and feel beautiful, and this inspired Beth who today serves as a NICU nurse at Hendrick Health.
“It was an uplifting moment in a scary time and I feel like I’m able to do that in my nursing,” Beth said.
“One nurse said ‘Breast cancer is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical,’” Tracey said. “I had to maintain a positive attitude, and trust the Lord through the process.”
In the years that followed, Tracey passed on that positive attitude and faith by encouraging other women who had cancer. They would call her and ask her about her experience, which she said she felt was not as hard as what other women had experienced. Tracey has been cancer-free since her surgery in 2012.
Samantha Mann heard about the “To Bless Others” photo shoot through her friends because she doesn’t spend much time on social media. Her friends sent her the photo shoot info
and said, “You have to do this!”
Samantha was no stranger to photo shoots – in fact, she had hired a professional photographer to document her experience when she had a double mastectomy almost five years ago.
“Just kind of being able to look back on that moment,” Mann said. “She actually came into the hospital, it was kind of a raw photo shoot: me at the hospital, people around me, my family. I’m glad that I had those, to just look back on.”
Several of her aunts passed away from breast cancer, so she knew she needed to get genetic testing done. In 2016, the tests stated that it was a matter of when, not if, she was going to get breast cancer. After getting the results back from three different doctors, she chose to get a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of getting breast cancer in the future.
“I had a lot of other life stuff going on at that time, emotionally, physically, it was a rough year,” Samantha said.
With her family living in other cities, she didn’t have much support in town. But she did have friends who checked on her and helped her.
“One of my friends took me to get my hair washed,” Samantha said. “After my surgery, it was so hard to move. She took me to get my hair washed, which was probably one of the greatest gifts that I got during that time.”
Going through those things caused her to develop a new strength, as she would have to tell herself everyday that she had made the right decision to keep her healthy in the future.
“There were physical scars and scars that couldn’t be seen,” Samantha said.
At that time, she had to deal with the surgery on her own, but today she is married to a man who supports her and has helped her deal with the ongoing journey to prevent cancer. Today she also has grown in her faith and the way she looks at cancer.
“What I’ve been trying to do more of is not speaking words into existence,” Samantha said. “What we speak over our life has a lot to do with what plays out. Stating things like ‘Cancer has happened with my family, but it doesn’t define my family. It doesn’t define me.’”
Below the scars of her double mastectomy, Samantha has a tattoo that says “I’m thankful for the scars.” The photo shoot was another way of showing how far she had come. Danielle Hadley and Kelly Turner were encouraging and supportive during the shoot.
“They are your biggest cheerleaders, they are just speaking words and giving you so much encouragement,” Samantha said. “It made me feel beautiful.”
For more information about the vendors, you can find them on Instagram:
Balloons and Decor: @janeoat_abi
Photography Studio: @thehadleyroom
Photographers: @thisiskellyturner @shayliannephotography
by Haley Laurence