Jen was Angelo’s love of his life. As soon as he met her, he realized she was the one. Five months after their marriage however, their vows were challenged by a diagnosis of breast cancer. During that moment of diagnosis where so many emotions are running throughout your head, they looked into each other’s eyes and held each other’s hands, and said as long as they had each other, they would be okay.
“Jen taught me to love, to listen, to give and to believe in others and myself. I’ve never been as happy as I was during this time. Cancer is in the news daily, and maybe, through these photographs, the next time a cancer patient is asked how he or she is doing, along with listening, the answer will be met with more knowledge, empathy, deeper understanding, sincere caring and heartfelt concern.”
This is their story.
How did you meet Jen?
In 2005 I was living in Cleveland, OH, and playing in a band called “The Vacancies.” We had just signed a record deal and during the times when we were not on the road or recording I needed a job to keep myself above the water. In my neighborhood there was a restaurant named The Fulton Bar & Grllle; I liked hanging out there and I decided to see if they were hiring. I stopped by one afternoon to apply and there was a sign on the door that read, “Getting supplies, back in 15 minutes.” So I waited and a few minutes later I saw a black VW Beetle pull into the parking lot. I walked around the corner of the building to greet whoever the driver was, assuming that he or she was the manager, and as soon as I saw Jen get our of her car…I knew she was the one. I had never seen such beauty before – I mean it was totally like a movie scene with theme music, birds singing, slow motion…That said, Jen didn’t feel the earth shake like I did so I had my work cut out for me!
When did you know that she was “the one”?
I knew the first minute I saw Jen that she was the one. In 1951, my dad saw my mom for the first time and later that evening he came home singing, “I found her,” to his sisters. This year, they celebrate their 62nd anniversary, so when I saw Jen and felt this, I knew it was real.
Could you tell us about the day that Jen was diagnosed with breast cancer?
At a routine visit with her General Practitioner in 2008, the doctor felt something strange in Jen’s breast. Immediately Jen had a mammogram and afterwards we went to see different doctors to get their opinions on the results.
I’ll never forget the day, February 10th, 2008, when Jen called me to tell me the doctors believed that she had breast cancer. I was working for a design and fabrication studio and was making a delivery in the company van. Jen called and said, “The doctors called, I have breast cancer.” I went numb and pulled the van over, telling my co-worker “you have to drive.” Fortunately we were on the way back to the studio. When we arrived at the shop I walked up to my boss and said, “Jen has cancer, I have to go.” It was surreal. I got home and held Jen. We had promised forever to each other and now, just 5 months later, that was being challenged. I remember looking into each other’s eyes and agreeing that we had each other so we would get through this.
That numb feeling has never gone away.
When did you decided to document you and your wife’s fight with breast cancer?
Jen’s cancer metastasized in 2010 and she began receiving regular chemotherapy treatment. Since the cancer had metastasized, there was no cure for Jen, just life-long treatment and the title of “chronic cancer.” Jen’s treatment cycle would run for 8-12 weeks, depending on the type of chemotherapy, and at the end of this period she would have a Pet/CT scan to see if the treatment had worked. Obviously, we wanted to get rid of all of the cancer in Jen’s body, but if the scans showed no new cancer then the treatment was considered to be a success.
Our life revolved around these treatment periods with the scan at the end dictating so much of our life – no new cancer cells equaled a fresh breath, new cancer cells equaled getting knocked down and having to pick ourselves back up. We were exhausted and overwhelmed and felt that our family and friends didn’t understand how serious our life had become; we felt that our support group was fading away at the time when we needed them the most.
Often people would tell us, “You’ll be ok. You’re getting treatment at one of the top cancer hospitals in the world and you just have to stay positive.” This was so frustrating!! We were positive, that wasn’t the point. The point is that day to day life with cancer is exhausting and people going through this need help (some people want to face this alone; we didn’t). We felt that if people saw what we were going through then maybe they wouldn’t say things like “you’re going to be ok, just think positive,” and more importantly, that they would be there for us.
So in the beginning, the photographs were intended for just family and close friends.
Was this therapeutic for yourself and/or Jen?
Making these photographs was a distraction for me, which is strange since I was distracting myself with the same thing I was trying to take my mind off of, but I really wasn’t thinking about making photographs, my priority was taking care of Jennifer.
I find that it is more therapeutic now because I can actually spend time looking at the photographs and thinking about what we went through, where as at the time that this was all happening I was so focused on taking care of Jennifer that everything else came second.
There are times now when I have to step away from all of this because it gets to be too much but I am so thankful that Jennifer let me make these photographs, they help me to remember.
Did Jen ever take the role of being behind the camera?
Jen used her iPhone to make photographs that she posted on her blog.
There is no road map for navigating through day-to-day life with cancer. Jen found that attending breast cancer support groups was a great way to meet other women who were facing the same/similar challenges and by sharing their experiences they could really help each other. For example, if Jen was starting a new chemotherapy treatment she could ask someone in the group who may have had the same treatment in the past about potential side-effects and the best ways to offset them.
Jen hoped that her blog could be an extension of her experiences in these support groups and I always admired how open Jen was about cancer and the importance she placed on helping others.
When you first began documenting your wife’s fight with breast cancer why did you decide to post the imagery online?
I started making these photographs to show our family and friends because we didn’t feel that they understood how serious our life had become and how badly we needed their help and support. I had no intentions of posting anything online but then a close friend suggested that I share our story with others so I posted some photographs and the response was amazing. I started receiving emails from women with breast cancer who told me that they were inspired to keep fighting because of Jen and another email from a woman who scheduled a mammogram because of us. At that point we felt that our story could shed light on the challenges of day-to-day life with cancer.
Why do you choose to leave the imagery online today?
People have continued to respond to our story and I feel it is important to show this part of cancer, it isn’t all pink ribbons and fundraising walks. My hope is that through these photographs more people will understand the importance of being there for someone who is fighting cancer. You don’t have to know what to say to someone with cancer, you just have to be there.
What is your all-time favorite photo of Jen?
I love them all because they are of Jennifer, but I especially love the photographs of the two of us together.
What photograph (that you have taken) has the most meaning and/or significance to you? Why?
Hmm… I can’t pick just one but I feel that this (above) photograph sums us up. From the beginning of our relationship Jen and I embraced every moment and were so happy to be together. I remember when we found out that Jen had breast cancer; looking into each other’s eyes we didn’t have to say a word, we knew we would face this together and I’m so thankful that I was able to be by Jen’s side.
How long was your wife’s battle?
Jen was diagnosed with breast cancer in February of 2008 and began receiving treatment the following March. Treatment consisted of a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and reconstructive surgery and in October of the same year our doctors believed that Jen’s body was free of cancer. In April of 2010, Jen was re-diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and she passed on December 22, 2011.
In honor of Jen you are setting up a non-profit organization to provide assistance to woman who are fighting cancer. Can you tell us a bit about this? Also, is there somewhere that people can donate to help support this cause as of now?
I am setting up a non-profit organization called The Love You Share and we will provide assistance to women receiving treatment for breast cancer. I am still in the process of applying for 501(c)3 status and cannot solicit for donations just yet so keep an eye on my website and Facebook page for updates.
We received so much help over the years, whether it was someone knowing how exhausted we were after chemotherapy and sending dinner, family and friends having a benefit that raised money to help us with our medical bills or someone running an errand that we couldn’t get to. This generosity was incredibly helpful for us and because of this help Jennifer and I were able to spend so much time together before she passed. My hope is that I can make life a little easier, even if it’s just for a moment, for someone who is fighting this horrible disease.
Your series of ‘reactions’ is very interesting. Was this something that ever bothered you and Jen? Or was it something that you just found interesting to document?
We were not upset that people were looking at Jen; it was just a reminder to us that she was sick. I did find it interesting that there is such a wide range of age, gender and ethnicity in the photographs and I have often wondered what these people were thinking.
Do you continue to document your life and things around you today with your photography? If so, where can this work be seen?
After Jen passed, it took a little time for me to pick the camera up and turn it on myself, I was so numb that nothing made any sense. Now I feel that my feet are getting a little closer to the ground and I have been making photographs of my life as a 39-year-old widower. I’m not sure where these photographs will turn up but I do post some photographs to my blog from time to time.
This experience must have been extraordinarily difficult for you, but you always kept it together for the sake of Jen. How did you do this?
I was so focused on Jen and whatever she needed that I just followed my gut, which at times meant putting my feelings away to revisit later in life. I felt that if I stopped to really think about the reality of what was happening on a deep level, my wife slowly dying right in front of me, it would have been too much to handle, and I had to stay strong for Jen. Thankfully Jen and I grew closer with every challenge and our Love really kept me going. Making Jen smile, hearing her laugh and knowing that she trusted me was everything to me.
And how would you recommend others in a similar position that you were in to ‘keep it together’?
I think that everyone has to find his or her own way. That said, there were definitely moments when I felt that I was losing my mind so I guess it’s important to remember that none of us are perfect and some days will be better than others. Yoga, meditation and exercise helped me and maintaining a healthy diet was important too – stress takes a heavy toll on us and it’s important to take care of yourself both physically and mentally. Talking with a good social worker or therapist was also very helpful for me, sometimes just saying what was on my mind made a huge difference.
How do you remember Jen today?
I remember Jen’s eyes, her smile and laugh, how she embraced life and that she didn’t sweat the small stuff.
There are so many memories and every day brings something new. It isn’t even like thinking anymore, I just feel Jen in everything I do.
And how would you like others to remember her?
Before going to sleep, Jen and I used to ask each other what the best and worst part of the day was, choosing to tell the best part last so we could fall asleep happy. Usually the best part for both of us was something like, “when I was having a tough moment and you kissed me,” or something along those lines. The night we came home from the hospital after being told that Jennifer’s liver was failing and she didn’t have long to live I asked Jen what she loved the most about that day, which we had spent with family and a few close friends. Jennifer thought for a moment then looked through my eyes and into my soul and said, “I loved it all.”
This is what I want people to remember about Jennifer.
For more information about Angelo Merendino and this beautiful story, please visit his website and/or Facebook page.
Freelance photographer and freelance model. Located in Calgary, AB. Happy to travel. M A K E A R T and (try to) love life.