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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.