Chris is one of my bestest friends in the whole wide world. We met our junior year of college at University of Colorado and quickly determined we were best friend material. Like, finish each-other’s sentences and laugh until our sides hurt kind of friends. She still lives in Colorado so I’m fortunate to see her when I am visiting family there.
Chris was diagnosed in March of 2018 with Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma. This rare type of cancer does not respond to chemotherapy or radiation, so her only option for treatment is surgery, and she has had several. This has left a pretty hefty scar on her neck and chest as you can see. Normally when I would see Chris, either in person or in photos, her scar was covered by a turtleneck or a scarf.
Prior to a trip to Colorado in May 0f 2021, I told Chris I was bringing my gear in hopes to get a shot or two of my dad. She made a fleeting comment about a Legacy Portrait session for her – showing her scar. This was HUGE! What a big step for her to embrace that scar and all it represents.
I travelled to Colorado in late May of 2021, and as promised I hauled all my gear with me with plans for a Legacy Session with my bestie. Early in Chris’s session, I was posing her and took her hand to move it to her scar. Once the pose was to my liking I moved back to the spot I was shooting from, turned around and saw this big tear rolling down her cheek. She said, “I guess I never touch it.”
Wow. This scar resides on her body 24/7/365, and she doesn’t touch it. Ignores it. Pretends it isn’t there. Yet this scar has a story to tell – a God story – and trust me it needs to be told.
Chris actually doesn’t like this photo. It doesn’t represent where she is now.
Christine is a woman of faith. She was, in fact, the first person I met that showed me what Christianity is SUPPOSED to be. Full of love and grace, not judgement. She showed me that Christianity is cool.
So many parts of Chris’s story cannot be explained by anything other than God’s plan. He showed up and showed off time and time again. And Chris ALWAYS gives him credit.
Christine’s cancer was found completely by accident. She felt 100% fine, not a single symptom. During preparations for a planned jaw surgery and x-ray showed a large mass on her thyroid. And after seemingly endless CT scans, blood tests, a thyroidectomy (during which a vocal cord was damaged), more scans and more tests, she received the diagnosis of Medullary Thyroid Carcinoma. As I mentioned before, this cancer doesn’t respond to radiation or chemotherapy. Surgery would really be her only option, and initially she was set to have that done in Colorado.
Something (something divine, imo) made Chris feel like she needed to contact an old friend from her workplace; a spiritual mentor of sorts that she hadn’t spoken to in years. She called him and told him what was going on in her life; after a pause on the other end of the line, this friend informed Christine that his best friend was the chief of head and neck surgery at Duke University and just happened to be one of the leading surgeons in the nation for the exact procedure she required – a “neck dissection.” Given that a successful surgery was her only shot for survival and the preservation of her vocal cords, her path became crystal clear. Chris ended up flying to North Carolina for her surgery and was one of the last patients this doctor performed surgery on prior to retiring.
Christine’s neck dissection was a success. Her follow-up scans were all clear, and while she still had micro bits of medullary cancer still in her body, her CEA and Calcitonin levels were stable. For the following couple of years, stable became her new best friend.
Until things weren’t stable.
In May of 2020, blood tests revealed that her Calcitonin levels went up. This was followed by CT scans and a biopsy from near her collar bone that tested positive for MTC. Chris and her husband Wade ended up heading back to Duke for this next surgery as well. The decision to go back was partly because Duke’s plan included 2 surgical teams: one for the neck to remove a tumor just under the collar bone (while preserving the nerve that controls her vocal cord), and then a thoracic team to open her sternum and remove lymph nodes suspected of containing microscopic levels of carcinoma. The teams would do their thing one immediately following the other on the same day. Surgeons from other hospitals in consideration wanted to separate these procedures. Put a pin in that fact… we’ll come back to it.
Surgery day. Wade gave updates as the day went on (as he received them, per Covid he couldn’t be in the hospital). Wade finally reported that Chris was out of surgery and in recovery, and the surgeons had “achieved all they set out to achieve.”
It was not until a day later that we learned the chaos had happened in that surgery room.
While the first team was working on removing the tumor under the collar bone, the wall of Christine’s innominate artery ruptured. Chris suffered critical blood loss. The focus went from cancer removal and saving her vocal cords to saving her life.
Remember that Chris and Wade chose to go to Duke because they could perform the two surgeries she needed back to back. BECAUSE the thoracic team – who was trained to handle this very situation – was in the room ready to operate, the surgeons were able to open her chest, locate the rupture, repair it and stabilize Christine. Not only were they able to stabilize her, but both teams FINISHED THEIR SURGERIES SUCCESSFULLY.
Chris did suffer two strokes in the surgery room, but in the end the cancer was removed, her vocal cords were preserved (which is good because my girl loves to talk!!), all symptoms resulting from the strokes subsided, and most importantly Chris is alive. The docs themselves were saying God had to be in that surgery room… Christine is a walking and talking miracle.
It was almost a year later that Christine learned some even more amazing information about what happened that day. Doctors showed her a 3D rendering of her aortic arch. Normally the innominate artery, which was tied off during the surgical incident (left vessel with jagged edges), supplies blood to the carotid, subclavian and vertebral arteries. Tying the innominate artery off would under normal circumstances stop life-providing blood flow to the spinal cord and brain. Christine is one of less than 5% of humans who has her carotid and subclavian arteries directly connected to her aortic arch (right two vessels), thus bypassing the artery that dissolved during her surgery.
You see, God … AT HER BIRTH… created Christine’s vascular system to withstand what happened to her in the surgical room that day. HE MAKES NO MISTAKES, AND HAS A PLAN LONG BEFORE WE KNOW ABOUT IT.
And if that doesn’t give you chills, I don’t know what would.
I’ve often admired survivors who take their experience and seek to help others with it – and Christine has done just that. She started a group called “THRIVE” at her company, and thus has touched many lives, and in turn has helped herself as well. But this Legacy session was a big step for her, best told in her words:
“I started THRIVE at my workplace with the vision to bring a group of survivors together to gain strength and resilience through a shared experience. We now have 380 members in the THRIVE community. There is power in telling your story. We recently expanded THRIVE to include mental wellness, and how by increasing your awareness of your mental health, you can move from surviving to truly thriving. I realized that by hiding my scar all the time, I wasn’t accepting the depth of my own story. I wanted to move ON from my story. I’m realizing it isn’t about moving ON, it’s about taking the power of my story WITH me.
Experiencing this legacy session, and having pictures taken of my scar has completely changed my attitude about my scar.
My scar is awe inspiring: It helps me see myself how God sees me – fearfully and wonderfully made
My scar is fierce: It represents my battle, and I prevailed
My scar is beautiful: It saved my life. And life is beautiful
Thank you Erica, for helping me embrace this fierce and beautiful scar that now reminds me of God’s great love for me. I won’t be hiding it anymore. I’ll be “wearing it” with pride from here on out.”
Erica Manning is a Fine Art photographer specializing in Creative and Legacy Portraits for individuals and families, as well as high school senior photos and headshots. She serves Columbus, Ohio and surrounding areas, and also offers destinations sessions world wide.
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