Photographer who fought own battle takes cancer journey with couple

Earlier this year, Jennifer Keenan Giliberto, a professional photographer, focused her lens on a cancer journey. She captured gut-wrenchingly powerful moments inside a hospital as well as tender moments at home where a husband and wife hold hands and sip tea.

Giliberto felt a deep connection to the project with Josh and Jenna Buehler of Atlanta even before she snapped the first photograph. Giliberto was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2007 and underwent surgery a year later.

“My goal was to pull the curtains back and expose the entirety of the patient experience,” said Giliberto, a 40-year-old mother of three children who lives in Alpharetta. “This is not a filtered and sanitized story. I want to bring the viewer face to face with the humanity of medicine and demystify what is often veiled from public view.”

The photo documentary, currently featuring 205 images in an ongoing project, begins in mid-March at Emory University Hospital Midtown, where Josh and Jenna Buehler huddle together in a hospital pre-op room before surgery, and then goes inside an operating room to let viewers see the surgery to remove the brain tumor.

From there, Giliberto follows the Buehlers as Josh undergoes radiation, rehab therapy, medical appointments, life at home and later when he begins to wear Optune, a new and highly innovative device that must be worn on the head almost around the clock, sending painless electromagnetic waves to the brain to stop cancer cells from spreading or dividing.

Giliberto captures moments of apprehension and anxiety, as well as light and playful moments throughout their journey.

» See a special presentation of a selection of photos from the documentary series here.

One particularly poignant photo shows Josh and Jenna Buehler in a bathtub, facing each other, smiling and sipping green tea. The daily Epsom baths are part of Josh’s treatment plan, providing supplemental magnesium and reducing inflammation caused by radiation and other cancer treatments. But it’s turned into so much more.

“Our days have become very task-oriented, so bath time is now how we silence the chaos and reconnect,” said Jenna Buehler, athletic trainer for Cross Country and Track & Field at Georgia Institute of Technology. Her husband owns an Internet service provider business.

In December 2014, Giliberto approached her Emory neurosurgeon about her idea for the photo documentary, and he helped identify Josh as a good candidate for the project in March.

Giliberto connected with Josh and Jenna on the eve of Josh’s surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor. Josh and Jenna Buehler said they immediately felt at ease with Giliberto. They also said they drew support from Giliberto, and felt comfortable asking her questions about the surgery, recovery process, the emotional toll of a cancer diagnosis.

“Our overall goal is not only to have some documentation of a very intense time in our lives that also feels like a whirlwind,” said Jenna Buehler, “but as Jennifer says, to unveil some of the mysteries because we face a lot of questions and few things can be told as well as a photograph. … We have had an overwhelming number of people we do not know thinking hopeful thoughts about Josh’s outcome. By sharing our story as much as possible, we hope people will think more about brain cancer and consider supporting and funding much needed research.”

In early March, Josh, 39, and Jenna, 29, were on their honeymoon in Taiwan when Josh found himself struggling with balance while walking. The couple had been married only about six months.

About a month after surgery, Josh Buehler returned to work. He is now back to working full time.

Giliberto has always been drawn to capturing candid moments — children playing baseball or running through sprinklers, a family marveling at an expansive view, tenderly leaning on each other at the top of a mountain.

But Giliberto, whose three children are 12, 10 and 4, said for years she has wanted to document the journey of a cancer patient.

She titled the project “This is … .”

“It grew out of my own frustration as a patient. Being a brain cancer patient is a part of who I am; yet many had lost sight of everything else I was and have defined me by my brain tumor. It was important to me to tell the story about what a brain cancer journey looks like in a very honest and raw way while not losing sight of the bigger picture. Cancer is certainly a part of Josh and Jenna’s life; however, these are images of adventure, love, strength, perseverance, commitment and an engineer, a 29-year-old wife and newlyweds who want to have children in the face of brain cancer. We are all more than one thing: our diagnosis.”