The Digital Journalist

Covering A Story from Inside and Out

by Paula Lerner

This story is an update to Peter Howe's mention of Paula Lerner in the January 2005 issue of The Digital Journalist.

There was a sea of pink shirts in every direction. Some of the people wearing them were laughing, others weeping, many embracing each other. The ones in the solid pink shirts were breast cancer survivors; others were there to honor the memories of lost loved ones, or to celebrate the survival of someone near to them, or in some cases all of the above. It was an intensely emotional scene.

The walker team “Buddies for Breasts” displays their distinctive "boob hats" during the Komen 3-Day Walk for Breast Cancer in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Paula Lerner
It was May of 2004, and I had been asked to collaborate on a book called Why We Walk: The Inspirational Journey Toward a Cure for Breast Cancer, put together by Lionheart Books, a book packaging company out of Atlanta. Deb Murphy from Lionheart and I were working on a prototype of the book to shop around to publishers. Surrounded by several thousand pink-clad participants in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Boston, Deb conducted interviews while I covered the event shooting stills. Everyone in the crowd had personal and often poignant reasons for being there, and the book would tell their stories. My own interest in signing on to the project was sparked by witnessing my mother and stepmother survive breast cancer. Women's issues have been a theme in my work over the years. This project was a good fit and felt important to me.

Two-time breast cancer survivor Maria Bradfield organizes "Hookers for Hooters," a group of faux hookers who dress up in colorful costumes to cheer walkers on. She and her friends have gone to events up and down the West Coast to show their support at various walks.

Photo by Paula Lerner
I was struck by how many of these women were uncomfortably close to my own age or even younger; many women in their thirties and forties were wearing the deep-pink survivor hats. It hit home to me that breast cancer was no longer an old ladies' disease. I felt both moved by the women in front of me, as well as vulnerable that any one of us could be next. Little did I know what ironic twist of fate was heading my way.

A month into the project I went for a routine mammogram. There was no lump, but calcifications identified by the radiologist made her deem it "suspicious." I was scheduled for a surgical biopsy several weeks later. By mid-July I received a call from the surgeon with the results.

Nothing can prepare you for hearing the words, "You have cancer." Life simply turns upside down. The next few months were a whirlwind of doctor's appointments, more biopsies, and procedures. When I wasn't running around my city consulting my medical team, I was flying around the country with Deb, urgently trying to complete as much of the book as possible before treatment sidelined me.

At an Avon Walk that passed through Sausalito, Calif., a friend stops to wipe away a tear from breast cancer survivor Maria Bradfield's face after an emotional moment. The walks are powerful community-building events that bring survivors and those close to them together.

Photo by Paula Lerner
Working on the book suddenly became an intensely personal experience. Whereas before I was doing something that I felt strongly about, now it was something I felt strongly about that was also about me. I was no longer on the outside looking in; now I was abruptly thrust inside the circle with the other patients in our stories and fighting for my life alongside them.

This created some unforeseen benefits and drawbacks. As photojournalists, when we parachute into people's lives, there is usually a lag time between the moment we meet our subjects and the time they feel comfortable enough to reveal a more intimate side of themselves. After my diagnosis, that lag time vanished. I was now one of them, a comrade down in the trenches, no longer an outside member of the media just doing a story. I was deeply moved by their generous support and concern. Their help and advice was an unexpected lifeline at a time when I sorely needed it.

One participant in the Avon Walk in San Francisco completed the entire 39.3-mile route in her wheelchair. She got a little help from her teammates when going up some of San Francisco's steeper hills.

Photo by Paula Lerner
The downside of being so personally involved was that the story became my life: everything I did was now about breast cancer. My work was about breast cancer, my personal life was about breast cancer; it seemed there was no corner to escape to that didn't have something to do with this miserable disease. Some days it felt like I had been transported into a nightmarish "Breast Cancer Channel" whose theme was "All Breast Cancer All the Time," and from which there was no exit.

I have photographed stories about sad or difficult subjects before, and there have been times when I was moved to tears by what I encountered. We as photojournalists wouldn't be human if we didn't respond to what we see. And there are moments when, because of this, it becomes impossible to keep working. At the closing ceremonies of the Komen 3-Day Walk in Washington, D.C., I was taking pictures of faces among the survivors when the voice over the loud speaker described how every few minutes another woman was diagnosed. My own diagnosis had been confirmed only days before, and suddenly I found I could no longer choke back the tears. I had to stop shooting and put my camera down. I was immediately encircled and embraced by the women around me, who unhesitatingly offered their support and comfort. I found myself buoyed by how they reached out. I don't think I fully understood the extent of the community-building power of these events until that moment.

Two-time breast cancer survivor Monica Cooper, now at Stage 4 of the disease, stops to embrace her husband and walking partner Dale during the Washington, D.C., Komen 3-Day event. His shirt reads, "I am walking for my wife and thousands of other Chemo Warriors."

Photo by Paula Lerner
By October of last year Deb and I managed to finish most of the book before my treatment schedule caught up with me. I underwent a seven-hour surgery that kept me in the hospital for more than a week, and at home recuperating for several months. I was lucky: they caught the cancer early and I escaped both radiation and chemotherapy. My prognosis, knock wood, is good and I've been back at work since three months post-op.

It is October, the book is out, and I participated in the Avon Walk in New York City this year as a walker rather than as a member of the media. As difficult as the past year has been, I have no regrets. Being diagnosed with the very disease that was the subject of a project was spooky and bizarre, but coming out on the other side of this experience has made it clear where my priorities are and what I want to spend my time doing. I'm currently documenting a women's peace and business initiative in Afghanistan, a project that is close to my heart, and to which I have a long-term commitment. No one knows how long we'll be here, and as an unwilling member of the cancer club some part of me will always be waiting for the other shoe to drop. But till that day I'm going to make the most of every moment.

© Paula Lerner

Since 1985 Paula Lerner has worked as a freelance photographer for a wide variety of national and international publications, institutions and corporations. Her new book produced together with Deb Murphy, "Why We Walk: The Inspirational Journey Toward a Cure for Breast Cancer," was published by Rutledge Hill Press this month. Her work can be seen on her Web site at She lives near Boston with her husband and their two daughters.

Her book is: Why We Walk: The Inspirational Journey Toward a Cure for Breast Cancer, Edited by Deb Murphy; Photos by Paula Lerner.
Discount purchase available online
Walking in N.Y.C. to fight breast cancer