By Julie Bloniasz
My name is Julie Bloniasz and I am a breast cancer survivor and advocate as well as a professional photographer, with an interest in photography for as long as I can remember. I also have a word written by a famous musician tattooed on my arm. But let’s start at the beginning.
My first job was as a photographer for guests of an amusement park and that is where I learned the basic techniques. After two summers there and graduating from high school, I kept the hobby, photographing first communions, parties, local band’s concerts and weddings for friends. Even though I wanted to go to photography school I was influenced by the views around me that photography was not a reliable career. I joined the working world of retail and banking. I had resolved to take courses through the bank I was working for to become a financial advisor. I had one course of five completed and was set up to start the next before I was officially diagnosed with breast cancer, changing my path completely.
In February of 2009, I found a hard lump on my breast and made an appointment with my doctor right away. She wasn’t too concerned since I was only 28 and had no family history. She scheduled an ultrasound. With questionable results, but little concern, she then scheduled a biopsy, “just in case”.
On March 30 I got the call at work that the doctor wanted to see me that day. I knew it couldn’t be good, but I tried to stay positive. On my way there I thought to myself that if I have to go through this I hope it’s because it saves another woman from the struggle, someone whose body may not handle it well, that it’s me instead. Even after reasoning with myself during the entire drive there it was still a shock when those words came out of my doctor’s mouth.
“You have Breast Cancer”.
The irony of this diagnosis, a disease I had already been raising awareness for at least a decade, was not lost on me. This was a calling.
The process began with a lumpectomy and removal of a few lymph nodes, for testing. A collapsed lung during surgery required a short hospital stay and a chest tube to re-inflate my lung. Then the treatments started:
- 8 rounds of two different chemotherapy cocktails, 2 blood transfusions,
- 6 consecutive (M-F) weeks of radiation,
- 10 months of preventative chemotherapy, that started with round 5 of regular chemo.
There were some risks that required monitoring, but no side effects.
My mantra was the quote “80% of success is just showing up”. The medical staff does all of the physical work. I just had to convince myself I was fearless and stay positive, which definitely became more difficult as treatments went on.
I used Facebook to update friends and family, and they would post words of encouragement or suggest songs for my survivor playlist, to help get me through treatments. I continued to work and had fun when I felt well enough. I also had something new to look forward to. I attended an open house at Hallmark Institute of Photography in Turners Falls, MA, between treatments. I went through the admissions process and eagerly awaited for treatments to end and school to begin.
Cramming a 2-year curriculum into 10 months made for a challenging and rewarding experience. As part of our 1st quarter-final assignment, we had to “take a self-portrait that shows something about you, aside from just how you look.” I purchased pink boxing gloves and suited up in my pink hoodie to portray myself as a fighter and a survivor.
10 years later, I continue to volunteer my photography services at the local, annual breast cancer walk, photograph related fundraising events and have had photos published in local books and calendars supporting breast cancer awareness and positive female body image.
I still need to regularly remind myself why I started pursuing photography as a career. I am often inspired by other artists who are clearly passionate about their work. After seeing them on their summer tour, with Train, and listening to their new album, Miracle Pill, I entered a contest to meet Goo Goo Dolls during their fall/winter tour. The new album has a song called “Fearless” on it that has become my new survivor anthem. Already planning to get a tattoo with a pink ribbon and a single word, I knew “fearless” had to be that word as soon as I heard the song.
I really didn’t think I’d win and couldn’t believe it when I got the email, I even asked if it was for real! That gave me a month to plan a trip to Atlantic City, freak out and think of what I might say to them, not necessarily in that order. I got a crazy idea; what if I can get the nerve to ask Johnny Rzeznik to write “fearless” for me?
Knowing meet & greets are literally a minute I practiced making my request quickly and clearly. I had a sharpie and a notecard with me and a picture on my phone of my tattoo design. When the time finally came and I was waiting in line, a promoter announced that they wouldn’t be doing any signing. Oh no! I told security and one of the promoters my story with tears welling up in my eyes, normally I back down and accept “no” for an answer, but then why was I there? This was serendipity. The song, the tattoo idea, winning the meet and greet...I was able to make my request if I waited till the end of the line.
Johnny Rzeznik and Robby Takac were so friendly, Johnny congratulated me on surviving cancer and wished me luck. And, yes, he wrote “fearless” for me and I got my tattoo the next day.