The Battle We Didn’t Choose: Capturing My Wife’s Fight With Breast Cancer

Warning: This article contains powerful and emotional content that may be difficult to view

Jen blurry

I knew the first minute I saw Jennifer that she was the one. Jen was beautiful and the kind of person that everyone wants in their life: she listened, and when you talked with her you felt like you were the only person who mattered. 

A few months later I finally worked up the courage to ask Jen out, telling her, “I have a crush on you.” At the time Jen was living in New York and I was in Cleveland. We talked on the phone for hours and wanted to know everything about each other; after 6 months of long distance dating I moved to New York.

I remember getting to town with an engagement ring burning a hole in my pocket and the girl of my dreams waiting there for me. That evening, after dinner at our favorite Italian restaurant, I got down on one knee and proposed to Jennifer. For the entire cab ride home we held each other close and stared at the ring on Jen’s finger, we were totally in love. 

In September of 2007 we were married in Central Park and we couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day. When I first saw Jen walking down the path I couldn’t hold back the tears, she looked so beautiful and full of life. To this day I can’t put into words why I cried, I was just feeling more happiness than I ever imagined could exist in this world. 

I remember looking into Jen’s big brown eyes the entire ceremony, feeling that they held the world. 

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I still struggle to believe that 5 months after this perfect day Jen called me with news that our doctors believed she had cancer. I rushed home to be with Jennifer. Completely numb, I remember telling Jen, “We have each other, we’ll get through this together.” Jen’s eyes lit up.

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Our promise of forever was now being challenged by something so completely out of our control, but we made the most of life and embraced each moment, never letting cancer get in the way of our loving each other will all of our heart.

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With every challenge we grew closer. Words became less important, we felt each other so deeply. I remember one moment in particular, Jen had just been admitted to the hospital, in tremendous pain. Looking up at me from her hospital bed, Jen told me, “You have to look me in the eyes, it’s the only way I can deal with this pain.” 

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Throughout our battle we were fortunate to have a strong support group but we still struggled to get people to understand our day-to-day life and the difficulties we faced.

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Jen was in chronic pain from the side effects of nearly 4 years of treatment and medications. At 39, Jen began to use a walker and was exhausted from being constantly aware of every bump and bruise.

A passerby stares as Jen hails a cab.

10-9-2011 Man looking at Jen

Hospital stays of 10-plus days were not uncommon. Frequent doctor visits led to battles with insurance companies. Fear, anxiety and worries were constant.

Sadly, most people do not want to hear these realities and at certain points we felt our support fading away. Other cancer survivors share this loss. People assume that treatment makes you better, that things become OK, that life goes back to “normal.” However, there is no normal in cancer-land. Cancer survivors have to define a new sense of normal, often daily. And how can others understand what we had to live with everyday?

5-13-2011 Jen waiting to get chemo after 2 weeks in hospital

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My photographs show this daily life. They humanize the face of cancer, on the face of my wife. They show the challenge, difficulty, fear, sadness and loneliness that we faced, that Jennifer faced, as she battled this disease. Most important of all, they show our love. These photographs do not define us, but they are us. 

11-22-2011 Jen's eyelashes

When I started making these photographs I thought that just the fact that they were photographs of my wife who had cancer should be enough for people to understand what I was doing. Then it hit me, I still have to make strong photographs. Just because the content is powerful it doesn’t mean that light, composition, exposure and most important of all, feeling, can be ignored.

Jen in pain Urgent Care

At this point I decided that the best way to make these photographs was to hit the shutter when I felt something in my gut. I trusted my instincts and felt that if something moved me then I should photograph it. To help make this possible my camera was always ready.

Most of these photographs were made with a Nikon D7000, which has 2 user settings plus the manual mode. I knew that in our bathroom and kitchen the exposure I wanted was 1/125th at f/4, ISO 1600, so I programmed this as User Mode 1. For the rest of the apartment I wanted to be around ISO 3200, 1/60h at F/2.8 and I set User Mode 2 accordingly.

My camera was always within arm’s length and again, when something hit me in my gut, I made a photograph.

During my early years as a photographer I often felt that my photographs lacked something real. I wanted to make photographs that would make people think, photographs that would still be important long after I am gone. I had no idea that this would come in the form of photographing my late wife as she fought for her life. Photography became necessity – when Jennifer’s cancer metastasized to her liver and bone we and we realized that our family and friends didn’t understand how serious our life had become, my camera became my voice.

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My camera also became a way for me to escape the reality that the love of my life was dying right in front of me and there was nothing I could do to stop this. Often I would put my emotions away because I just had to stay strong for Jennifer… I knew there would be a day when I would be able to face these feelings.

These photographs have now become therapeutic for me. I look at photographs of Jennifer and I remember our love and all the challenges we faced together. Without these photographs I cannot imagine how I would be dealing with the loss of my wife. I tell people all the time that they should be making photographs of their life and technology has made this so much more accessible for everyone.

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12-17-2011 F/Stop guarding Jen

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from making these photographs is the importance of trust, respect and honesty. Jennifer trusted me. She knew that I would never make a photograph of her that was inappropriate. This trust let to Jennifer being completely open. Last October I attended the Eddie Adams Workshop in Upstate New York. Lynn Johnson spoke that weekend and she said something that resonated with me. Lynn said, “the people we are photographing are not subjects, they are humans.” I think of this every time I make a photograph.

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12-29-2011 Following the hearse to Jen's burial

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Update: Merendino has now published his story as a digital book.

About the author: Angelo Merendino is a photographer based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter here. The project “The Battle We Didn’t Choose” can be found in its entirety here.