When Mirelys (MJ) Jimenez was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer, she was just 39 years old. She was younger than the suggested age for starting a yearly mammogram routine, and yet her tumor had already been growing for about a year before her diagnosis, because doctors believed she had a plugged milk duct from breastfeeding.
Jimenez was told she would need a unilateral mastectomy, so she began looking online to learn more about what the experience was going to be like. Still, she found the appearance of her body after the surgery somewhat shocking.
“I had seen pictures of mastectomies, but it’s kind of difficult when you look at your own,” Jimenez said. “And then I didn’t find a lot of images online of women who look like me, with a uni. That’s what we’re called when you only have one breast left.”
It didn’t take the mother of three long to realize that breast cancer was not at all what she expected it to be. Between the commercialization of pink products, the campaigns to save breasts rather than saving women, and the entire month dedicated to breast cancer awareness, breast cancer is among the most sexualized of diseases. And that means that it often isn’t taken as seriously as it needs to be.
“I think that a lot of people just, you know, they think of breast cancer, they’re like, ‘Oh, the pink little fuzzy ribbon and it’s so pretty and cute’—but in reality, it’s not,” Jimenez said. “There’s nothing pink about breast cancer.”
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So Jimenez set out on her own journey to illustrate what breast cancer was really like for her and other women through a topless photoshoot that shows off patients’ mastectomy scars. The HOPE photo project sheds a more serious and solemn light on the issue of breast cancer and offers a raw and honest look into the realities of the disease, all while also showcasing the strength and tenacity of the women who endure it.
Initially, Jimenez only photographed herself. She took photos of her son breastfeeding to help her remember that bonding moment forever, since she knew she would not be able to breastfeed during chemoradiation. “Cancer robs you of that connection with your child,” she said.
But the images of her breastfeeding her son with one breast missing soon drew attention from people around the world, and she realized she needed to develop the idea into something bigger.
“I slowly started to get comfortable with taking pictures of myself and posting them, and the feedback that I got was really positive,” Jimenez said. “It was really good, there was a lot of women who reached out to me and told me, ‘Wow, that’s great, you look like me,’ or ‘I look like you,’ or ‘You’re so strong, thank you, you’re so courageous, you’re so confident’—when in reality, I’m not.”
The HOPE photo project began with the eight Hope United Girls (HUG), women Jimenez is in a support group with. They have not only been there for her throughout her illness but were also her first subjects and the inspiration for the title of the project.
“The women who I photographed are actually my support system,” said Jimenez.
For the photoshoot, Jimenez got help from two assistants, makeup artists, and a hairdresser. But she didn’t need a wardrobe stylist, because she photographed her subjects topless, giving viewers a perhaps shocking but also completely real look at what breast cancer does to a body and a life. She also used special t-shirts with empowering quotes on them to inspire her viewers. She hopes to show other women who have been through something similar that they’re not alone and that they’re beautiful.
One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life. While maintaining a positive attitude is important for many women during the course of their breast cancer treatment, Jimenez argues that the upbeat messages usually portrayed in the media have taken things a bit too far. And the public fundraisers very rarely donate to vital research for stage IV metastatic breast cancer, which is the only stage at which breast cancer is capable of killing a person.
Watch the video below to learn more about Jimenez’s story and her very special project to destigmatize mastectomy scars and show people what breast cancer really looks like. One thing is for sure—it’s definitely not pink.
Jimenez is now cancer-free, but she says her type of cancer, triple-negative, is very unpredictable and could come back again.
Jimenez hopes her photography project will encourage women to do self-exams and get regular mammograms. Share this story to remind your loved ones how important these simple tasks are to maintaining their health and life!
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?