My wife’s fight with breast cancer, The Battle We Didn’t Choose

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“Love every morsel of the people in your life.” Jennifer Merendino

«The first time I saw Jennifer I knew. I knew she was the one. I knew, just like my dad when he sang to his sisters in the winter of 1951 after meeting my mom for the first time, “I found her.” A month later Jen got a job in Manhattan and left Cleveland. I would go to the city – to see my brother, but really wanting to see Jen. At every visit my heart would scream at my brain, “tell her!!” but I couldn’t work up the courage to tell Jen that I couldn’t live without her. My heart finally prevailed and, like a schoolboy, I told Jen “I have a crush on you.” To the relief of my pounding heart, Jen’s beautiful eyes lit up and she said “Me too!” Six months later I packed up my belongings and flew to New York with an engagement ring burning a hole in my pocket. That night, at our favorite Italian restaurant, I got down on my knee and asked Jen to marry me. Less than a year later we were married in Central Park, surrounded by our family and friends. Later that night, we danced our first dance as husband and wife, serenaded by my dad and his accordion – ♫ “I’m in the mood for love…”♫ Five months later Jen was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember the exact moment…Jen’s voice and the numb feeling that enveloped me. That feeling has never left. I’ll also never forget how we looked into each other’s eyes and held each other’s hands. “We are together, we’ll be ok.” With each challenge we grew closer. Words became less important. One night Jen had just been admitted to the hospital, her pain was out of control. She grabbed my arm, her eyes watering, “You have to look in my eyes, that’s the only way I can handle this pain.” We loved each other with every bit of our souls. 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. Throughout our battle we were fortunate to have a strong support group but we still struggled to get people to understand our day-to-day life and the difficulties we faced. Jen was in chronic pain from the side effects of nearly 4 years of treatment and medications. At 39 Jen began to use a walker and was exhausted from being constantly aware of every bump and bruise. Hospital stays of 10-plus days were not uncommon. Frequent doctor visits led to battles with insurance companies. Fear, anxiety and worries were constant. Sadly, most people do not want to hear these realities and at certain points we felt our support fading away. Other cancer survivors share this loss. People assume that treatment makes you better, that things become OK, that life goes back to “normal.” However, there is no normal in cancer-land. Cancer survivors have to define a new sense of normal, often daily. And how can others understand what we had to live with everyday? My photographs show this daily life. They humanize the face of cancer, on the face of my wife. They show the challenge, difficulty, fear, sadness and loneliness that we faced, that Jennifer faced, as she battled this disease. Most important of all, they show our Love.  These photographs do not define us, but they are us. 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». Angelo Merendino When I read for the first time the story of Angelo and Jennifer I was deeply impressed, these photographs left a great wound into my heart. I decided to tell you about this story in order that no one pretend to be blind, in order that people appreciate more the gift of life, in order that the battles that we didn’t choose aren’t abandoned from the other’s attention. I interviewed Angelo at midnight, his 6PM… My name is Angelo Merendino and I live in Cleveland, Ohio What is the photography for you? I like to photograph people and all the little things in life that make me happy. What does it mean to be a photographer in New York? I am no longer living in New York but it was very exciting to make photographs their. There is so much going on. In Cleveland it is different but also exciting. There are people everywhere who have a story to tell. Different in what? There are more people in New York, and more of everything. New York never sleeps. Cleveland is a smaller city but there is also a lot to see and do here. When you decided to start taking pictures of Jennifer’s disease? I always made photographs of Jennifer but in April of 2010 her cancer spread to her liver and bone. After this we noticed that our family and friends didn’t understand how serious Jen’s illness had become and I started making photographs of our daily life. You wrote that your photos humanize the face of cancer, in what way? They show something that many women are facing and many people are afraid to talk about. What were the major difficulties encountered with the American health care system/American national insurance company? What would you change? We were fortunate to have health insurance but it was still very expensive. Some prescriptions were very expensive and we had to have them. I would hope to see health costs become more affordable. If we would not have had health insurance we could have lost everything we had – it is very expensive. What was the most difficult choice you had to take? I cannot think of just one. There were many challenging times but Jennifer and I were close and we made the best decisions we could. How to change the life for a woman with a cancer? I hope people will think about how they can help a loved one who is facing cancer and not stay away. You don’t have to know what to say, it is important to be just be there. What advice would you give to a person who is facing this disease? Everyone will face this in their own way. I think it is important to stay positive and to let people in your life know that there is no room for negativity and drama. This week, a famous Hollywood star shocked the world with a stunning public revelation — she had recently undergone a double-mastectomy. What do you think about? I think it is great that Angelina Jolie shared her experience. It is important that we share what we know or how else will we learn? Even though she is a famous movie star she is still a human being and this could not have been an easy decision for her. I wish my best to Angelina and her family. I hope that people keep talking about all of this. How is your initiative was welcomed by the Americans? What were the criticisms for your shots? People have been very receptive to our story. Some people have been upset when looking at the photographs and I understand this, they are emotional. Overall I am humbled by the support and encouragement. I have read that your photos have been removed from an art gallery because they were considered inappropriate, why do you think people feel afraid by the reality of the diseases? It is frightening to accept our own mortality. I feel that accepting this has helped me to appreciate life more. In what way do you think should be conducted an effective prevention campaign? I think we should have more dialogue. Why did you agree to do this interview? I want to share our story with anyone who wants to listen. What is love for you? Love is kindness, devotion, patience, understanding… What world is this of today, what would you change? More love, less hate What advice would you give to future generations? Take care of and be good to each other. Doesn’t matter who has the most, happiness is worth more than gold.