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CDC exhibit chronicles the lives of cancer survivors

Marcella Law searched for images of hope after getting diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago.

“You think about the word ‘cancer,’ and you have visions of what someone with cancer looks like. I needed to see people who didn’t look sick and dying,” said Law. “I needed to see people who were smiling, playing with their kids. I needed to see images of people living their lives.”

She needed to see people like herself.

Today, Law is part of a powerful and uplifting photography exhibit called “Cancer Survivors In Focus” at the David J. Sencer CDC Museum.

Law and 11 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention colleagues are featured in an exhibit called “Close to Home.” The work of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist John Kaplan is showcased in a poignant autobiographical collection of photographs called “Not As I Pictured.”A third piece highlights a project by photographer and ovarian cancer survivor Carolyn Taylor called “Without Borders: The Global Face of Cancer.”

The exhibit, which runs through September 10, candidly capturing everyday moments of living with cancer – from Kaplan getting his head shaved to doing a “energy” dance with his wife and children on the beach. His photographic journey begins in 2008 with a close up of two hands — that of Kaplan and his wife — locked together in prayer, as they wait for the results of a biopsy. Their fingers are so tightly intertwined and the photograph is in such sharp focus you can see the pink of their fingernails. (The biopsy turns out positive for non-Hodgkin lymphoma).

It wasn’t so long ago that the mere word “cancer” seemed like a death sentence. People are increasingly comfortable with opening up at their cancer diagnosis. At the same time, survival rates have steadily risen, particularly among certain cancers such as breast and colon cancer, because of early detection and improved treatment. The five-year survival rate for all cancers diagnosed between 2002 and 2008 is 68 percent, up from 49 percent between 1975 and 1977, according to the American Cancer Society.

On a recent morning, dressed in a pale yellow dress and a pink breast cancer awareness bracelet, Law talked about her own transformation and how she hopes her experience will encourage others. She stood in front of a poster-sized photograph of her with her children, enjoying a light moment at home.

“At first, I was broken and devastated, and I have gone from there to peace. The fact that I could go from needing to have a friend go with me for a routine mammogram to going to surgery by myself and just asking someone to pick up my car is really something,” said Law, who is 49 and lives in Conyers. She is a senior program management officer for the CDC.

The images are heart-breaking and uplifting.

In the “Close to Home” section, a black-and-white photograph captures a tender moment as a mother hugs her toddler daughter, who has neuroblastoma, a rare pediatric cancer. The photograph carries the following caption:

No parent ever believes that their child will be affected by cancer. So when it happened to me in June 2012, I was in utter disbelief. Tears immediately filled my eyes, and my heart was struck with fear. But in the midst of this, something amazing happened: my sweet Adrienne looked up at me, gently placed her hand on my face, and without words said, “We will be okay.” From that moment on, I realized that she would be my strength and source of inspiration. If she could do this, so must I.

Also featured in the exhibit is O. Ann Larkin, diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998 when she was 38. It was not a mammogram — but a dream that alerted her that something was wrong. She said she saw in her dream a stained slide with cancer cells. When she woke up that morning, she felt a lump in her left breast. Larkin, who works in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control at the CDC, said she doesn’t like being in the limelight. But she felt compelled to open up about her cancer diagnosis to encourage people to advocate for their own health and take advantage of health and wellness programs for cancer survivors. Larkin of Snellville trusted her instinct and got a second opinion about a treatment plan, a decision she is confident saved her life.

About cancer, she said, “You prioritize. You put your life in order. When I was faced with death, I didn’t think about things like, should I have worked an extra hour this day or that day? I think, If I am not going to make it, will my kids know I really loved them?”

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