Arts & Entertainment

The SCAR Project reveals breast cancer reality

Being a young woman isn’t easy; it’s a complicated juggling act of career, relationships, family and self-discovery. Young, trailblazing women simply don’t have time to contend with life-threatening maladies like breast cancer – but sometimes they are forced to make time.

A breathtaking exhibition opens this week at On Seven David Jones, offering an intimate glimpse of the surprisingly young face of breast cancer. Shot by fashion photographer David Jay, The SCAR Project is an arresting series of 27 large-scale portraits of brave young women, aged 18 to 35, with breast cancer.

Since Mr Jay started The SCAR Project in 2005, more than one hundred young women have travelled to his New York studio to be photographed. He says, “For these young women, having their portrait taken seems to represent their personal victory over this terrifying disease. It helps them reclaim their femininity, their sexuality, identity, and power after having been robbed of such an important part of it.”

In all of the portraits, as the women bear their mastectomy scars for the camera, their faces are etched with the resilience of the human spirit.

Mr Jay explains, “Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance of what has happened to them, and the strength to move forward with pride.”

CEO of the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF) Carole Renouf says that the portraits double as a powerful tribute to the many young women whose lives have been interrupted by breast cancer, and act as a cautionary tale for those who might not consider themselves at risk.

She says, “Breast cancer in young women has been described by doctors who treat it as ‘a tragedy’ and ‘a lethal disease’. For young women, in particular, breast cancer hits them like a train. They tend to think it’s an older woman’s disease and that, if they have no family history, they are safe. In fact, family history only explains a maximum of 15 per cent of breast cancers.”

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) predicts that 15,270 Australian women are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer this year.

Although the risk of developing breast cancer increases with age, young women are by no means immune. Each year, around 800 women under the age of 40 are diagnosed with breast cancer in Australia.

Ms Renouf says, “While the incidence of breast cancer for young women is relatively low, its impact on a young woman’s life is disproportionately high.

“Women under 40 don’t see breast cancer coming – and the types of breast cancer these young women get are often far more aggressive, with a much poorer prognosis. Young women also have a higher risk of recurrence, metastasis (the spread of the cancer to other organs) and dying.”

The exhibition will be installed in a majestic event space on the seventh floor of the David Jones Elizabeth Street flagship store, where Christian Dior’s first Australian couture show was held in the 1960s.

It is fitting that the first exhibition of the SCAR Project portraits outside of North America should be here in Australia. The project began in Sydney’s Bondi when Mr Jay was inspired to photograph a dear friend after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer at 32.

Ms Renouf says, “We are very pleased to be able to bring the SCAR Project home. Breast cancer knows no borders. Despite the great progress made to date through research, 37 women are diagnosed in Australia every day and seven of these still die.”

The incidence of breast cancer is increasing in Australia. According to the AIHW, the annual number of new cases of breast cancer diagnosed has almost tripled for women (and doubled for men) since 1982.

Ms Renouf says, “Significant inequities in health outcomes have emerged and need to be addressed, especially for young women. NBCF is committed to improving outcomes for these women under 40. They stand to lose so much, and we as a society stand to lose so much by losing them. The SCAR Project is a powerful vehicle to remind us of the realities of the disease.”

This project is a departure from the world of fashion for Mr Jay, otherwise known for his stylised commercial and editorial photography. Unlike the glamorous, idealised femininity depicted in glossy fashion magazines, the SCAR portraits are raw, honest and uncompromising. Reimagining true beauty, The SCAR Project trades in reality, not sugar-coated fantasy.

Ms Renouf notes that Mr Jay grappled with how to best represent the SCAR subjects. She says, “In the early days he opted for beauty as that was his world and also the young women sought it from his lens. Over time, however, he has quite deliberately shot more gritty images.

“However, whatever he may do and whatever his subjects may have been through, young women are beautiful. They represent an innocence, grace, courage and hope that breast cancer cannot take away, even though some of his subjects have lost their lives.” (CC)

Until Sep 21, On Seven, David Jones, Elizabeth St, Sydney, free, nbcf.org.au/theSCARproject

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