Breast cancer doesn't just take away parts of your body. It can also take the people and things you love the most. And it can take away your control.
While Cheryl Listman was undergoing radiation treatment for breast cancer, it wasn't safe for her to be around her children. When Maggie Kudirka was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer at 23 years old, she had to give up her career as a Joffrey ballet dancer in New York City.
By taking their portraits, Linda McCarthy gave these women back their control. Their stories — and photos — are especially notable this month. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
McCarthy runs Visual Concepts Photography, a Davidsonville studio where she takes senior photos, family portraits, glamour shots and headshots. In the last year, she has taken photos of 20 women who survived or are being treated for breast cancer — for free.
"I feel like a lot of these fundraisers really focus on raising money and don't really focus on the survivor herself," she said. "(The photos are) a legacy they can leave behind. It's something they have that's tangible so they can feel beautiful."
McCarthy offers these women a free photo session, including a makeup artist, champagne and $100 gift voucher toward their prints.
"They always leave saying 'Oh gosh, I feel really beautiful.' I want to show them that when I see through the lens, I can capture their soul," she said. "We always focus on the negativity of our parts, but I see the whole of you. Your kids can say 'Wow look at my mom. She's a warrior. She's really beautiful.'"
McCarthy's breast cancer series started with a ballerina.
When she heard of Kudirka, known nationally as the "Bald Ballerina" for her public speaking, McCarthy was inspired. McCarthy had not been affected by breast cancer, but she wanted to make Kurdika feel beautiful.
Kurdika was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in June 2014. A couple of days after her diagnosis, she started a blog that sparked invitations to speak around the country. She dances part-time and performs when she can, but needs regular infusions at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
"Anyone can be diagnosed at any age. Age, fitness, race and gender don't matter," she tells her audiences.
McCarthy rented a ball gown and brought Kurdika, an Ellicott City native, to downtown Annapolis. Kurdika showed off her ballet skills in strong, triumphant poses from sunrise until the early morning.
At the sickest she'd ever been, Kurdika also felt stronger than ever.
"To see my state's capital and be in this beautiful gown, it was really powerful for me," she said. "When I was diagnosed, I felt my life was over and I had no control over it. Any chance I got to feel empowered, I took. Just being able to see that I could be empowered and still feel beautiful made me feel in control of my life."
After taking pictures of Kurdika, word got out that McCarthy wanted to start a series of portraits capturing women affected by breast cancer.
"Next thing I knew I was being sent more of these breast cancer survivors," McCarthy said.
One of those survivors was Cheryl Listman, head of the Bras for a Cause annual fundraiser in Annapolis. McCarthy took Listman's photo last month in her wedding dress. Listman got married in June.
She is in remission after being diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2015. Listman went through four months of radiation treatment and had a double bilateral mastectomy in February 2017. After a complication — her body rejected the reconstruction — she had to have three surgeries over 60 days, then two surgeries after that.
Four years before she was diagnosed, Listman started Bras for a Cause and has since raised $100,000 for women fighting breast cancer.
"It's for the things you don't think of when you're in the fight. The grass needs cut but you can't cut it, or you need to make dinner but you can't physically make dinner. When your kids need school supplies. We help pay bills," Listman said.
Listman said McCarthy didn't just make her feel beautiful, she got her to open up.
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"She has an amazing talent," Listman said. "I'm the type of person who will help anybody and do anything. I can speak in front of Congress and not bat an eye, but when it comes to me and having my photo taken I am very shy. I just get very awkward, but she made me feel so comfortable."
Seeing herself through McCarthy's eyes brought Listman to tears.
"Looking into my eye in those photos, it's remarkable what she captures. There were days where I was in so much pain I couldn't even close my eyes because I was afraid I was going to die. I just knew I wouldn't open them again," she said.
"I was a single mom away from my kids when I was in treatment. I really missed my kids because I had radiation pouring out of me so I couldn't be with them. To look at those photos now and remember those days. … She brought all that back of how far I feel like I came."
While McCarthy has helped women like Kurdika and Listman feel grounded, not even she feels fully in control. McCarthy set up an appointment with a young woman she met in August who she wanted to photograph for the series on Sept. 22, but the woman died on Sept. 14.
"That's how fast this thing can hit. When she came in she was full of positivity and vibrant and beautiful," she said. "After doing this whole project, I'm just humbled by the strength of these women and what they have to go through."