“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.

Advertisements

Carvelli: Making Lemonade Out of Life’s Lemons

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 9, 2017

Author and life coach Linda Carvelli believes that everything in life has a purpose and that resilience will get you through any obstacle in your path. She succinctly illustrates this philosophy in her 340 page memoir, “Perfectly Negative: How I Learned to Embrace Life’s Lemons Lessons.” The self-published book details how she faced personal and family tragedy over a decade of deep emotional pain only to realize that each devastating life experience gave her more courage and strength to face the next one.

Carvelli a Warren resident, dedicated over twenty years of her professional career to computer technology and project management before writing her first full-length memoir, published in 2016, that reveals how she ultimately came to terms with her life’s mission. That is helping people overcome and learn from the challenges in their daily lives. As a board certified life coach, she brings lessons from her book to people to help them regain control of their lives, discover new perspectives, create more options, and move forward with confidence and courage.

Facing Your Own Life Lemons Lessons

Perfectly Negative introduces a cast of real, relatable characters who will have you crying, laughing, and ultimately rejoicing in Carvelli’s triumph and determination to make sense of the overwhelming heartbreak she endured. This insightful memoir reveals nuggets of wisdom to reassure you as you face your own life lemons lessons.

The inspirational tome follows Carvelli’s forty-six years, through her idyllic childhood growing up in a close-knit Italian household into her later years where she faced a decade’s worth of personal and professional losses. It begins when the native Cranston resident was focused on planning her first marriage in 1996 and received the news of her mother being re-diagnosed with breast cancer, ultimately leading to her death two years later.. Six months later, the memoir details her sister’s diagnosis of breast cancer and how she lived with this devastating disease for seven years. Like her mother and sister, Carvelli was also diagnosed with breast cancer, although she ultimately made a decision to have a double mastectomy. She also experienced a divorce, left a long-term relationship shortly before her father died, and finally was laid off her job.

This book is for all ages and anyone who is overcoming obstacles. Carvellli’s first full length book detailing her overcoming life challenges, is getting rave reviews, too.

Here’s a review from a judge at the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards: “It’s unputdownable! From the first paragraph, author Linda Carvelli draws in the reader with tightly focused, well-written scenes and immediately identifiable characters. Even though this family is well-to-do with all the material trappings, they have heartbreak galore with “four cancer diagnoses, three deaths, two divorces and a significant other turned not-so-significant” not to mention job and friendship upheavals and a medium who helps provide some much-needed spiritual anchoring. These can be anyone’s friends, family and significant others, regardless of race, creed or socioeconomic status.”

The judge adds, “By interweaving several plot lines and balancing suspense – and using plain but power language with a much needed dollop of objectivity – this book avoids the mawkish self-pity and excessive detail that can be the undoing of similar attempts. It’s like sitting down with a best friend and catching up on the latest news–before one knows it two hours have passed and there’s still more to discuss.”
Another reviewer said, “I thought this was going to be depressing but boy was I wrong.”

A Decade Worth of Learning

Looking back, “my life was a mess,” said Carvelli. What surprised the 14-year cancer survivor the most was that when she eventually reflected on that most painful decade of her life, she realized that each tragic event gave her more courage and strength to successfully face the next one, she says.

Carvelli remembers that after ending a seven year relationship she took a solo-vacation to Jamaica to just refocus and stabilize her life. She rediscovered journaling, a healing activity that she took up earlier in her life to detail the decade of upheavals. An audio book, “The Shack,” an inspirational story where the protagonist overcomes personal tragedy and finds faith again, gave Carvelli food for thought and insight on her life’s journey.

“I realized that when I was in the midst of each tragedy I just did what I had to do to get through it,” says Carvelli, noting that “I lived in the present moment.” But, looking back she found herself surprised with the realization that she survived some tough events.
“Only then did I realize “the intensity” of the experiences.

Carvelli’s personal life stabilized a bit when she got engaged in 2011. Although she had found her true love, a lump in her breast discovered a week before being let go from her job in brought back anxiety and fear she remembered when being initially diagnosed with cancer. It was losing her job and the result of the medical test that inspired her to write the book.

“At first I was angry about losing my job because I was really good at what I did,” said Carvelli, who quickly acknowledged the job loss and accepted it when she realized, “It gave me time to begin writing the book I always wanted to,” she said.

With a supportive fiancé and all the free time Carvelli began the writing process. With the help of a writing coach, using old journals of the tragic decade and recent writings, a book slowly took shape. Over four years, four completed drafts combined with a final edit would lead to her self-published memoir released last year.

The Power of Resilience

“When I finished writing the last chapter of my memoir, the reason for my existence stared me in the eyes and ignited a fire in my heart. My life’s purpose is to serve as an example of resilience,” says Carvellli.

Author Carvelli has added certified life coach to her professional skillset to bring the insights and tips from her book to people, helping them move forward in the midst of life’s tragedies. Carvelli, 51, says that her life journey has given her clarity about her purpose on earth. “Coaching and managing people through business and personal changes is why I was put here, it is my life’s purpose,” she says.

Lemons can be a great teacher in your life. Carvelli shares these lessons in her memoir and also on her blog (http://www.lindacarvelli.com/blog/).

The Rhode Island author has also published a short story, “I Miss My Breasts” in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope and Healing for Your Breast Cancer Journey. She co-facilitates an informal support group, Sisters in Survival, for cancer survivors and their caregivers. Originally from Cranston, RI, she currently lives in Warren with her husband, two step-teens and Enzo Vino, the family dog who follows Carvelli everywhere..

“Perfectly Negative” is available online at Amazon.com. To arrange an interview or schedule a book signing or inspirational talk, visit http://www.lindacarvelli.com or email linda@lindacarvelli.com.

TV Celeb Valerie Harper Calls for More Funding for Cancer Research

Published in Pawtucket Times, May 12, 2014

With a growing population of aging baby-boomers, the U.S. Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on Wednesday to put the spotlight on how decreased federal funding to support cancer research is derailing the nation’s successful efforts on its fight against cancer and to detail treatment advances. .

In Dirksen Building 562, Chairman Bill Nelson (D-Florida) addressed the packed room on how innovative cancer research has tripled the number of survivors during the last 40 years, while continued federal cuts to balance the nation’s budget are having a severe impact on biomedical research.

But, despite significant advances in medical treatments over the years, cancer still is a major medical condition for the national to confront. About 1.6 million Americans—the majority of them over age 55—will receive a cancer diagnosis this year, and more than 585,000 will die from the disease.

Putting Cancer Research on the Public Agenda

In his opening statement, Nelson stated that “As a result of the sequestered cuts, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), had to stop 700 research grants from going out the door.” Federal funding support has “accelerated the pace of new discoveries and the development of better ways to prevent, detect, diagnose, and treat cancer in all age groups,” he says.

Cancer research has been put on the radar screen of the Senate Aging panel because “little is known about the impact of cancer treatments on the body as it ages,” added Nelson.

Nelson notes that although many cancer survivors are in remission because of ground breaking advances in research, there still remains a large percentage of people with cancer across the nation who are still dependent on their next clinical trial, or even the next NIH research grant to keep them alive just a little bit longer. This is why Congress must be committed in its war against cancer, he adds, noting that the best place to start is to renew the federal government’s role and commitment to innovative research that is taking place at universities, oncology centers and hospitals, where much of the federal funds are being directed by NIH.

Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Cancer Institute, said more research is needed to fully understand how cancer is linked to aging. “Because most types of cancer-but not all-are commonly diagnosed in older age groups, the number of people with cancer is rising [with the world’s population rapidly aging], and continue to rise, here and globally.”.

“For people of any age, the first line of defense against cancers and their damaging consequences is prevention,” states Varmus.

Dr. Thomas Sellers, director of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, made his views quite clear about the federal government’s “irreplaceable role” in funding medical research. “No other public, corporate, or charitable entity is willing or able to provide the broad and sustained funding for the cutting edge research necessary to yield new innovations and technologies for cancer care of the future,” he says.

Sellers warns, “Without increased funding now, the spectacular advancements we have witnessed in the past will not be there in the future.”

Star Power to Make a Point

One of the nation’s most prominent lung cancer survivors, Valerie Harper, who rose to fame on the “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Rhoda,” “Valerie,” and more recently on “Dancing with the Starts, advocated at the May 7 Senate panel for increased funding for cancer research. Harper, detailed her own battle with cancer, reminiscing about her initial diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009, later finding out last year that her cancer had spread to the lining of her brain.

Through the eyes of an entertainer Harper explained her fight with cancer. “Cancer reminds me of a very bad but tenacious performer, who although no one wants to see, insists on doing an encore, having a return engagement, making a comeback and worst of all, going on tour,” she said.

According to Harper, more than two-thirds of all lung cancers occur among former smokers or those who never smoked, the majority being former smokers.  Second hand smoke, air pollution and radon, a colorless, tasteless and odorless gas, can cause lung cancer. But, one’s genes can play a role in developing lung cancer, too, she says.

Seventy four-year old, Harper, a cancer survivor of four years, admitted she never smoked, but was exposed to secondhand smoke for decades. As to family, her mother developed lung cancer and later died from it. The actress believes that her lung cancer might be traced to two risk factors, second-hand smoke and genetics.

In her opening testimony, Harper claimed that 75 percent of all lung cancers are often times discovered too late, in the later stages when the disease has already spread. The vocal cancer advocate called for Congress to put more funding into finding better ways for early detection of the disease.

Harper notes that research can also identify new treatment options for lung cancer when it is detected in stages 3 and 4 and finding promising ways to personalize chemotherapy, by testing genetic markers, making the treatment less toxic and more effective against specific tumors.

Others on the Witness List

In 2012, Chip Kennett, 32, a former Senate staffer, remembers passing his annual physical “with flying colors.” Weeks later, a nagging, blurry spot in his right eye would lead to a PET scan that showed he had cancer “everywhere.”

Looking back, he expressed to the Senate panel the shock of being diagnosed with having cancer. “There are really no words to describe what it feels like to be told you have an incurable disease that will kill you,” he said.

Now 18 months post-diagnosis, Kenett, who is now living with an as-yet incurable form of State IV lung cancer, is now in his fourth targeted treatment, the clinical trials have allowed the young man to lead a relatively normal and productive life. “Research saves lives and I am a living example of that. The drugs that have kept me alive for the past 18 months were not available just seven years ago,” he says.

Other witnesses at the hearing included Mary Dempsey, assistant director and cofounder of the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing in Lewiston, Maine, who shared her experience of taking care of her mother, Amanda with her Brother, nationally renowned actor Patrick Dempsey seen on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Over 17 years since the mother’s initial diagnoses in 1997, she had a total of twelve recurrences and just recently died in March.

“My mom lived this experience, and I shared it with her as her primary caregiver,” notes Dempsey said. “In this role, I experienced first-hand the impact cancer had on every part of my life. For me, it really became a full-time job, navigating resources, understanding the medical world, and coping with the profound changes in our lives.”

A Call for Increased Cancer Funding

Hopefully the Senate Aging Panel’s efforts to put medical research on the short list of the nation’s policy agenda will get the attention of GOP lawmakers who over the years have attempted to balance the nation’s budget by slashing NIH funding.

Cancer touches every family. Everyone knows of a family member, colleague or friend who has died from cancer or is a cancer survivor. Americans must send a strong message to their Congressional lawmakers, “no more cuts to medical research.” If the nation is truly at war with cancer, it is shameful to not give the nation’s medical researchers the adequate funding necessary to defeat it once and for all.

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