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‘Stories of Hope’ tells of life, not disease

Photos explore diversity, shared strength, of local cancer survivors.

The photographic image is so striking that even preoccupied patients at Virginia Mason clinic’s waiting room take note.

Rosemary Tracy, an islander and long-term cancer survivor, rests in the concave curve of one tree – if “rest” isn’t too passive a word to describe the forthright Tracy, whose gaze suggests she might have moulded the tree to her own contour, rather than the other way around.

The image is one of a series of portraits of cancer survivors by island artist Karyn Carpenter currently on view at Virginia Mason’s Bainbridge branch.

The diversity of the islanders Carpenter has photographed demonstrates the perversely democratic nature of the cluster of diseases called cancer; they are men and women from all walks of life, they are old and, in the instance of 5-year-old Meghan Smith, diagnosed with leukemia at 15 months, heart-wrenchingly young.

But no one looks like a victim here; the photos speak to living, not dying.

So do the stories that accompany the portraits, written by Meghan’s mother, Lynn Smith, from interviews with the survivors.

Many say they have developed inner strength through adversity.

For Tracy, the first step on the road to growth came with her diagnosis of “infiltrating ductal carcinoma” in 1990.

“Fourteen years ago this September, I was diagnosed with cancer,” Tracy said. “In the beginning when I was newly diagnosed, I was filled with shock, outrage and self-pity. How could something so horrible be happening to someone like me?

“I was always the one who ate the “right” foods, exercised regularly, had annual physical exams, had the ability to express all my emotions (both positive and negative) in a constructive way, had a loving supportive circle of family and friends.

“In other words, I did everything right.”

Tracy soon rallied to meet the challenge head-on. After a bi-lateral mastectomy, she elected to have a double dose of the strongest chemotherapy available.

Now a long-term survivor, Tracy offers emotional support to those with the disease.

“(Having cancer) has given me more than it has taken away,” she said. “It has clarified in my mind the things that really matter to me, things like love, family, loyalty, true friendship, compassion and acceptance.”

Young victims

Three-and-a-half years after their 18-month-old daughter Meghan’s diagnosis of chronic myelogenous leukemia, Lynn and Darren Smith can attest that life goes on after cancer.

Meghan was 15 months old when a check-up turned into a parent’s nightmare.

“(The doctor) said, ‘oh, this feels a little weird, let’s do a blood test,’’’ Smith recalls. When the results of the test came in, the doctor sat her down.

“She said, ‘I have bad news.’ The first thing I said was ‘no.’”

Smith was told to head directly to Children’s Hospital.

After chemotherapy, Meghan underwent a bone marrow transplant at 18 months.

The family was preparing for Meghan’s return when the little girl developed the severe reaction to donated tissue called “acute graft versus host disease.”

“It was a disaster,” Smith said, “We almost lost her.”

What saved her daughter, Smith says, was an experimental drug being tested by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

“They reopened the trial for her,” Smith said. “It worked within a week.”

A second bout was treated successfully.

Today, with just one cancer cell per million cells, Meghan is close to cancer-free.

“We just take it day by day,” Smith said. “It’s taught me you can handle stuff you don’t think you can.”

* * * * *

Karyn Carpenter’s “Portraits of Cancer, Stories of Hope” are on public view at the Virginia Mason Clinic on Bainbridge. The prints will travel to several Kitsap venues, with funding from Humble Abode, a local nonprofit offering support to those affected by cancer. Information: www.humbleabode.us.

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