“Bosom Buddies” Brings Healing to Breast Cancer Survivors

Published in the Woonsocket Call on November 26, 2017

Sometimes a personal health-related issue and one’s professional life experiences blend together almost seamlessly to create an opportunity to help others in similar situations. It took over 20 years for Mary Jane Condon Bohlen, a Cranston resident, professional photographer, artist, former teacher and breast cancer survivor, to do just that, achieving her dream of publishing her book, “Bosom Buddies.”

Each photograph of the 29 women posing in “Bosom Buddies” reveals the scars of breast reconstruction and the coffee table book also features an essay, poem, or other writing from the model on the opposite page, providing further insight into the journey through breast cancer.

“I chose the name “Bosom Buddies” as the title of this book and photographed my “buddies” kayaking, riding horses, working in their gardens, singing, doing yoga and other loves,” says Bohlen. “I sought to reveal the thoughts, fears, inner spirit and especially the hopes of those brave enough to bare their bodies and show their beauty,” in a book that took two years to complete.

In May of 2008, after living with a mastectomy of her right breast for 16 years, she was told that cancer had returned to her left side. Now with two mastectomies, breast cancer gave her the insight and wisdom to photograph women in a very vulnerable health state that appear in “Bosom Buddies.” The women photographed are typical of women who “battle breast cancer every day.”

“They have taken their bravery one step further by allowing themselves to be photographed in subtle and delicate settings,” says Bohlen.

The Inspiration

As a fourth grader, Bohlen began taking pictures with a camera that her parents gave her. In later years, as a medical photographer working in hospitals all over the City of Boston, she photographed artificial hearts being implanted in pigs and cows, cutting edge surgeries on humans, a 16mm movie of a lung transplant in a rat photographed through a microscope, social events that included dignitaries, film, TV, and Broadway stars, weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, PR work, in addition to her own fine art photography, including the publishing of “Bosom Buddies.”

Bohlen, 73, remembers that her desire to publish “Bosom Buddies” began in 1993 in Ledyard, Connecticut, one year after she was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. Standing by a magnificent tree over 400 years old, 90 feet high with a circumference of over 26 feet, where Native Americans gathered to vote on tribal issues, Bohlen began snapping photos of the remains of the dead tree damaged by gypsy moths over the centuries. Upon close inspection of the printed images she saw a one breasted figure and that immediately inspired her to create an aquatint etching, she would call “Bosom Buddy.”

“The Ledyard Oak became my “Bosom Buddy” and helped me to relate to my inner beauty that was so much more meaningful than what was found beneath my clothing,” says Bohlen.

Ultimately her etching would lead to the publishing of a coffee table book including photos and essays of breast cancer survivors expressing how breast cancer may have affected their lives. A short biography about what they are now doing with their life is also included. “I wanted the world to know that there is life after breast cancer. Life goes on and it isn’t always a death sentence,” she says.

Reflections from “Bosom Buddies”

Sharyn Vicente, 52, of Cumberland, was photographed at a spa in Arizona during a very special trip. In 2008, Vicente was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 41. Initially she did not wish to be photographed but went outside of her comfort level to participate in the project.

Vicente details in her essay in “Bosom Buddies” how breast cancer impacted her life. “It was a long road with many unexpected bumps along the way. In three short years, I had both breasts removed, half of my right kidney, my uterus and both ovaries. While I felt that my body was systematically being hollowed out, I thought that I really didn’t deserve yet another escape from the grim reaper. This all also made me feel as though I was no longer a woman.”

But, “Cancer did not and will not rule my life,” says a reflective Vicente in her biography, noting that she spends time fundraising for the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation (GGBCRF) and mentoring woman going through the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Participating in this book project began the healing process

Nicole Bourget-Brien, 47, a two-time breast cancer survivor celebrating a decade of being cancer free was photographed lifting hand weights in her brother-in-law’s gym. The photograph captured how she felt that day, “strong”

The Woonsocket resident was warned that after the mastectomy she might not be able to exercise at the same level as before the surgery. But, “I have proven that to be false. I am working out more vigorously now than I did when I was in my twenties,” she says.

In her biography in the book, Bourget-Brien says, “I have made a choice to live and not just exist after my cancer diagnosis. I have learned to breathe- to remember that the rearview mirror is smaller because it is where we have been and to look thru the windshield to enjoy what lies ahead.”

Tracey Donahue Henebury, 48, sits on a rock by a pond sunning herself. She urges readers of “Bosom Buddies” to “look beyond the scars and nudity and read each and every heartwarming story which describes the strength, sacrifices, and fears each one of us has faced.” The book is just “breathtaking,” she says.

Over the last couple of years, she has been on “an emotional roller coaster due to the complications of her mastectomy,” admits Henebury. In “Bosom Buddies,”she states “Nothing has knocked me down where I don’t get back up on my feet.” Support from family and friends and The Gloria Gemma Foundation “enhanced my scars as beauty and strength.”

Of course, you will find a self-portrait showing Bohlen wearing boxing gloves, ready to fight a battle against cancer. After her second mastectomy, neither her friends nor her family “got it.” “No one to tell me they knew what I was going through, no one to ask questions about what to expect. I knew no one else with breast cancer, it was a lonely journey,” she says in her essay in “Bosom Buddies.”

Relocating to Rhode Island and connecting with the Pawtucket-based GGBCRF changed her life, providing her with a support system and friends. She supports the nonprofit by donating 50 percent of the profits of her $40 book to the Foundation.

Bohlen now resides with her husband of almost 47 years, Bob, in Cranston, her daughter, Nie and 8-year-old grandson, Sam, along with her youngest son, Patrick live close by while her older son, Bobby lives in Portland, OR.

There is a real need for this book to find its way to women recently diagnosed with breast cancer and to their families and friends. In 2017, Breast cancer will claim the lives of 40,610 woman throughout the nation, predicts the American Cancer Society, a nationwide voluntary health organization dedicated to eliminating cancer. More than 300,000 women in the U.S. will become breast cancer survivors.

“Bosom Buddies” has allowed the breast cancer survivors participating in this unique book project to come to terms with their inner and exterior scars, and has enhanced their body image after a mastectomy. Bohlen knows that this healing will take place in the readers as well.

At the 2016 National Indie Excellence Awards, Bohlen’s book, “Bosom Buddies” was one of three Finalists in the Photography division and the winner in the Cancer books division.

To purchase, call Mary Jane Condon Bohlen at 401-474-8903 or email to bosombuddies1@verizon.net.

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Prominent Oncologist’s Death Wish at Age 75

Published in Pawtucket Times, December 12, 2014

Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, MD, Ph.D., a nationally-recognized oncologist and bioethicist, definitely marches to a different drummer.  While millions of older Americans pop Vitamins and supplements like M&M Candy, regularly exercise at their local gym, religiously jog and carefully watch what they eat to increase their life span, the chair of medical bioethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, says living past the ripe old age of 75 is not on his bucket list.  We would be doing both society and our loved ones a favor by agreeing with this belief, he says.

When I am 75…

Why not age 80 or even 85?  Emanuel admits that his 75th birthday day was just a randomly chosen number, but the year was selected because scientific studies indicate that increases in physical and mental disability occur around this age, as well as a decline in both creativity and productivity.

The renowned 57-year old breast oncologist is at the top of his professional game.  Emanuel has received dozens of awards from organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society, including being elected to the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academy of Science, the Association of American Physicians, and the Royal College of Medicine (UK). Hippocrates Magazine even selected him as Doctor of the Year in Ethics.

Emanuel is a prolific writer, editing 9 books and penning over 200 scientific articles. He is currently a columnist for the New York Times and appears regularly on television shows including Morning Joe and Hardball with Chris Matthews.  .

The prominent physician, is also considered a key designer of the Affordable Care Act (commonly called Obamacare).  At a personal level, he has two well-known brothers, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, former White House chief of staff, and Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel.

With this prominence, Emanuel’s death wish to die at 75, (the year 2032) before the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and decreased physical stamina (it’s harder to walk a quarter of a mile, even to climb 10 stairs) is drawing the ire of critics who charge that he advocates for health care rationing and legalized euthanasia.

But Emanuel claims that these charges are not true.  Setting his death at 75 is just his personal preference, he says, leaving his mortal coil. In his writings and media interviews he notes that setting the age when he hopes to die just drives his daughters and brothers crazy.

Last October, at the BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit in Manhattan, Emanuel’s prop, a full-page AARP ad from a newspaper, featuring an older couple hiking above a line of text that read, “When the view goes on forever, I feel like I can, too. Go long.”  Reinforcing his point, Emanuel is not buying AARP’s message pushing the positives of living an extended life.  For him, he doesn’t buy it and most definitely, seventy is not the new 50.

Sharing a Death Wish on the Air Ways

On Dec. 7, on CBC Radio Canada’s Sunday Edition, Emanuel, discussed his controversial October 21, 2014 article published in the The Atlantic, “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”  His Sunday interview detailed his unconventional and controversial stance, especially to AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group, and aging organizations who strongly oppose this type of thinking.

Throughout the 28.12 minute interview with Michael Enright, Emanuel, he warns listeners, “Don’t focus on years, and focus on quality.”

“A good life is not just about stacking up the years and living as long as possible. People need to focus on quality of life,” says Emanuel, noting that “Setting an actual date for a good time to die helps you focus on what is important in your life.”

“It is really about what you are doing to contributing and enriching the world.  I want people to stop focusing on just more years, focusing on quality,” he says.

Emanuel says that you need to be realistic on living forever, your body and mind doesn’t  go on forever.  You should just be satisfied with living a complete life, he says.

By age 75, people will have gone through all stages of life, says Emanuel.  As a child you begin to develop skills and figuring out your place in the world. You go to college, raise a family, work to hone your skills and talents. At the later stages of your life you give advice and mentor people, he says, noting that in your mid-seventies, physical deterioration and mental slowing along with loss of creativity, begin to be felt.

During his radio interview, Emanuel claimed he is very active, recently climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with is two nephews, stressing that he is in relatively good health and doesn’t have a terminal illness and has no plans to commit suicide.   As a matter of fact, the physician even condemned physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, in a 1997 article published in The Atlantic, a policy allowed in the states of Oregon, Vermont and Washington.  His philosophical view of ending one’s life is to allow the body to age naturally, he stresses.

In eighteen years, Emanuel pledges to refuse all medical procedures and treatments, including taking medications such as statins, cholesterol lowing drugs, and antibiotics that could prevent life-threatening illnesses or extend his life.  He notes that his last colonoscopy will be at 65, to screen for cancer.  No more colonoscopies after 75.  And, he’ll only accept palliative care after that milestone age, too.

“I’m not suggesting people kill themselves at 75 but, rather, let nature take its course,” Emanuel says.

How Others See it

Emanuel’s personal preference not to seek medical procedures or to use medications at age 75 that might lead to his death is not the same as physician assisted suicide, says Rev. Christopher M. Mahar, S.T.L., of the Providence Catholic Diocese, noting that this choice has always been respected by the Catholic Church.

“He is not actively choosing to take his life, and as long as he is not rejecting any of the ordinary means necessary for the preservation of life, such as nutrition and hydration, and is not intentionally destroying his body, he is free to decide for himself, says Mahar.

As Emanuel says, there is a downside to aging.  My 88-year-old mother died after a 14 year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.  At age 89, my father, whose quality of life declined over his later years, died suddenly, by having a pulmonary embolism.

For me, 89 is the year I choose to meet my maker, hanging up my spurs.  Yes, I will let nature take its course, but I will most continue to take Vitamins and antibiotics, even my Lisinopril, for high blood pressure.  I will not turn my back on medical procedures or technology that might enhance the quality of my life, even lengthen it.

I agree with the statement of late Actress Betty Davis stated, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”   There is no alternatives, you can only hope for nature to ultimately take its course, and it will.  And so, we all are inclined to pick our own magic number.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.

E-cigarette Legislation to Get Make Over

Published in Pawtucket Times, May 3, 2013

Just weeks ago, health advocacy organizations found themselves in an awkward, uncomfortable situation at the Rhode Island General Assembly. Although they supported the stated intent of House and Senate bills (H 5876 and S 622) that blocked the sale of electronic cigarettes (or e-cigarettes) to minors, they were forced to oppose these legislative proposals because of troubling provisions they believe were embedded within these bills.

When introducing his Senate proposal, e-cigarettes, says Senate Majority Leader Dominick J. Ruggerio, are proof that not all technological advances are good things. This led the Senator, representing Providence and North Providence, to become the Senate’s lead sponsor. House Finance Committee Chair Helio Melo, whose legislative district covers East Providence, jumped in as prime sponsor in his chamber, because of his desire to get the debate started on this relatively new public health issue.

E-cigarettes contain nicotine, a highly addictive substance. According to the U.S. Federal Drug Administration, the safety and efficacy of e-cigarettes have not been fully studied, consumers of e-cigarette products currently have no way of knowing whether e-cigarettes are safe for their intended use, how much nicotine or other potentially harmful chemicals are being inhaled during use, or if there are any benefits associated with using these products.

Additionally, it is not known if e-cigarettes may lead young people to try other tobacco products, including conventional cigarettes, which are known to cause disease and lead to premature death.

The FDA warns that more research needs to be done on the health risks of inhaling liquid nicotine, and has announced its intent to assert regulatory authority over electronic cigarettes.

New Technology in Smoking

Although the first patent on e-cigarettes was filed in 1963, the smoking device became readily available in the United States by 2007. E-cigarettes are electronic nicotine delivery systems. Often shaped like cigarettes or cigars, they deliver nicotine to a user in the form of vapor. E-cigarettes ordinarily consist of battery-operated heating elements and replaceable cartridges that contain nicotine or other substances, and an atomizer that, when heated, converts the contents of the cartridge into a vapor that a user inhales. The nicotine in these products is derived from tobacco, but unlike cigarettes and cigars, there is no tobacco in e-cigarettes, and hence no smoke.

Ruggerio noted that his legislative proposal would prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, along with expanding the statutory definition of “tobacco products” to include “tobacco-derived products” and “vapor products.” “Vapor products,” as included in these bills, would refer to any non-combustible tobacco-derived product containing nicotine, such as an electronic cigarette, that employs a mechanical heating element, battery or electronic circuit, regardless of shape or size that can be used to heat a liquid nicotine solution contained in a vapor cartridge. The term would not include any product regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

“Those who say these products are designed for adults who want to quit smoking real tobacco products are ignoring the fact they are marketed to be appealing to youngsters, offered in flavors such as bubblegum and chocolate,” observed Ruggerio. “Kids may see these as fun things, but as adults, we should know better and take action to keep our children safe.”

Health Advocates Rally to Oppose E-cigarette Proposal

At a first read, Director Karina Holyoak Wood, of the Rhode Island Tobacco Control Network (RITCN), saw the e-cigarette legislation proposal as positive step toward keeping the new smoking technology out of the hands of minors. However, once Wood, whose anti-smoking network includes 55 groups (including the American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids), looked over the bills she found it embedded with provisions that could potentially undermine future regulation of e-cigarettes and create regulatory loopholes.

Wood and colleagues discovered that the e-cigarette bill was being promoted by RJ Reynolds, a major tobacco company. She believed that while the legislative sponsors’ intent was to prohibit youth access to e-cigarettes, a laudable goal, she feared that RJ Reynolds might be utilizing the bill as “a Trojan horse to establish their own business agenda for this emerging and currently unregulated smoking device.”

Suspicions were confirmed, says Wood, when a lobbyist from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company came to the Ocean State to support Ruggerio’s and Melo’s e-cigarette bills at the Senate and House Finance Committee hearings on April 9 and April 23, respectively. She also became aware that similar legislative proposals were popping up all over the country, with the Winston-Salem, North Carolina tobacco company lobbying for their passage.

Wood, and 17 health advocacy organizations gave the bills the thumbs down at both panel hearings, while the tobacco industry endorsed the measure wholeheartedly.

In her written statement, Dr. Patricia Nolan, former director for the RI Health Department, who now co-chairs the RITCN’s Policy Committee, warned the Senate Finance Committee members that the bill would define “a ‘new’ tobacco product and exempt it from some of the controls that currently apply to all tobacco products. She charged that it would define these products in ways that actually might undermine Rhode Island’s ability to effectively regulate and control them.

According to Nolan, the bill’s definition of tobacco products may not include all e-cigarette and vapor products, leading to confusion. The new products regulated by laws concerning indoor air pollution and worker safety, she charged. “The safety of e-cigarettes and vapor devices for users or for indoor air quality is not known,” she said.

With the State scrambling for tax revenue, S 622 and H 5876 are silent on the issue of taxation of the e-cigarette product. “Having the definition in the tax section of the law could facilitate either taxing or exempting these ‘new’ products,” she told the House panel.

Nolan also noted that the bills create obstacles to enforcing penalties against merchants which violate the Youth Access Law by eliminating the requirement for courts to maintain records of penalties and fines imposed for violations not requiring that the Division of Taxation be notified about the disposition of the violation.

Other opponents and critics included the RI Department of Health’s Tobacco Control Program, the City of Providence and East Providence Prevention Coalition, and several local retailers, including Barrington-based, Ecig Shed came and Cigotine, LLC, in Providence, who came to share their concerns, both owners threatening to leave the Ocean State if the measure was enacted. Melo’s e-cigarette bill would greatly reduce their sales by restricting online sales of nicotine-containing products by treating the smoking device the same as traditional tobacco products, noted the business owners..

Specifically, e-cigarette bills would require a retailer conducting an online sale to obtain a copy of the buyer’s driver’s license along with a statement from the buyer affirming that they are the person pictured. The purchased product must be sent through a service that checks the ID of the buyer at delivery. Retailers would be required to perform this check every time a consumer places an order.

Finally, e-cigarette retailers in Rhode Island would be required to obtain a tobacco license and only buy their e-cigarettes from licensed wholesalers or distributors.

At the hearing, Lobbyist Jack Hogan, of R.J. Reynolds’s Tobacco Company, noted that his company’s support of the General Assembly’s cigarette legislation, and proposals being considered by other state legislatures, was to keep tobacco, including e-cigarette products out of the hands of minors under age 18. In countering the concerns of the health advocates, “there is no hidden agenda [in supporting the e-cigarette legislation]. It is the right thing to do,” he said.

Voices Heard

With the effective mobilization of health advocacy organizations to oppose H 5678 at the April 23 House Finance Committee, Wood and some of her network partners and the Health Department would meet one week later with Melo to discuss their strong opposition to his e-cigarette bill. As a result, he offered to withdraw his bill for further study, effectively killing it. He invited the health advocates to work with him on a new bill, comprehensively defining e-cigarettes and vapor products and prohibiting their sale to minors, will be reintroduced next year, he says.

The saga of the e-cigarette legislative proposal is a good example that participating in the legislative process can go a long way especially for those who put the energy and effort into it. Sound testimony combined with bringing in your supporters to the table will most certainly get the attention of lawmakers. Yes, that’s Democracy in action.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.