Displaced Persons

Jila Nikpay’s new photography book celebrates breast cancer survivors, revealing the reality behind a once-shrouded subject.

She stands with legs wide apart, weight casually thrust to one side, one arm outstretched, as in a modified “warrior” pose from yoga. She is wrapped in gossamer white fabric—except where her hand dramatically holds it away from her body. Her chest is perfectly smooth, a plane facing the camera, save for two large scars that form a sort of cross. This is the way Jymme Golden, whose breast cancer was diagnosed 13 years ago, when she was 36, wanted to be shown in Jila Nikpay’s new book of photographs and poetry, Heroines: Transformation in the Face of Breast Cancer.

The portrait of Golden is presented in the book alongside photos of 20 other women who have undergone treatment for breast cancer. Nikpay spent five years finding and photographing these Minnesota women, seeking to capture what she calls their inner life—their self-image, their spirituality, their personal goals. She wanted to discover how their mindsets, in addition to their bodies, have been transformed by breast cancer. And she hopes her book, to be released next month, will help reassure women entering breast cancer treatment not only that there can be life after cancer, but also that dealing with the illness can bring a more focused, empowered perspective. “For many people, as devastating as the diagnosis is, it’s also a gift,” says Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing and a supporter of Nikpay’s book. “It’s one of those life realities that makes you stop in your tracks.”

Nikpay’s studio, where photographs of nude women line the walls, is located in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District, just around the corner, ironically, from the Déjà Vu strip club. In the warm light of Nikpay’s sanctum, however, beauty is more subjective, sexuality more subtle. Nikpay’s main artistic preoccupation is displacement; as an Iranian émigré, Nikpay is interested in the emotions associated with traversing unfamiliar territory. She approached her book on breast cancer with the hypothesis that people who have such a disease are similarly displaced—they have entered a foreign land of illness and, in Nikpay’s words, “have lost the perfect body they were given at birth.” In its place is a new body, to which they must adapt.

Of course, no two women deal with breast cancer in quite the same way. For every Jymme Golden, unabashedly exhibiting her radically altered post-surgery profile, there are other women who say they might not have had a mastectomy if breast reconstruction were not yet medically possible. Thus, no two photographs in Nikpay’s book are alike.

In her portrait, Marya Hage, 73, holds a chambered nautilus. “I saw it as a symbol of growth,” she says of the mollusk, which adds new chambers to its shell throughout its life. Elizabeth Erickson, 63, is wrapped in black fabric, sari-style, serenely cupping her hands in a prayerful pose. Laura Vander Heyden, 33, strikes two poses: one coyly sensual, the other regal. In both, she seems utterly at ease, particularly for someone who learned she had breast cancer at age 29 and is now temporarily experiencing menopausal symptoms, a side effect of the estrogen-blocking drugs she must take for another few years. Her attitude is slightly easier to understand if you know that her mother, her grandmother, and three of her aunts were also diagnosed with breast cancer at a similar point in their lives. From a very early age, Vander Heyden knew there was a good chance she would be standing in their shoes—a member of “a club,” she says, “that you don’t want to join.”

“When you know you have a family history of breast cancer, you have a positive edge. You accept it and move forward,” she says. “I looked at it as a rite of passage. Do the surgery, the chemo, and the radiation.”

Vander Heyden recalls her first childhood encounter with the disease: watching her father make foam breasts for her mother to wear until she received her prosthetic breasts. Her mother and aunts, in younger years, were always finding humor in their situation, she says, “constantly trying to think of new ways to embarrass their kids with their ‘removable’ breasts…from posing for family photographs with their prostheses on top of their heads to whipping one out when young men from a passing car hollered, ‘Show us your tits!’”

And yet, when Vander Heyden decided to have a mastectomy, she debated whether to go through with it right up to the day before the surgery. “It’s something I think about every day,” she says. “I wonder if I made the right decision. It’s not like a regret; you just kind of miss the way things were.”

Like her mother and aunts, Vander Heyden was eventually able to “find the bright side of a dark disease,” as she puts it. It happened when she was undergoing chemotherapy. “One morning I woke up and realized that I didn’t have to style my hair or shave my legs, and then I had another epiphany: I’ll never have to wear another bra again!”

Vander Heyden says her grandmother, who died of heart complications stemming from her cancer treatment, was much less open about the disease. Until recently, many breast cancer patients felt embarrassed by, not proud of, their altered bodies, and they likely wouldn’t have been comfortable posing for a book like Nikpay’s. “They would have had the sense that this is deformed or ugly,” says Kreitzer. “The book brings out that these are beautiful women with beautiful bodies.”