Breast cancer survivor Michelle Blackburn was able to embrace and transform her scars into something beautiful and empowering–and now she’s helping other women do the same.
Along with body artist Chantal Hughes and photographer Izabela Pioro, the Thunder Bay trio have helped close to 50 women become part of “The Butterfly Story”–an ongoing series of portraits of breast cancer survivors designed to tell their individual life stories.
These portraits were the highlight of the Rainy River District Breast Health Network’s biennial “Luncheon of Hope” held Saturday at La Place Rendez-Vous.
A 35-year-old breast cancer survivor, Blackburn first was diagnosed with breast cancer on Oct. 8, 2010.
She had a mastectomy and 18 lymph nodes removed while also undergoing chemo and radiation treatments, she told the sold-out crowd of 180 women at the luncheon.
“There was sadness, tears, and many fears. But in the darkness, there was also light and hope,” Blackburn said, recalling good times and laughter with her family and friends.
After ending her active treatment in May, 2011, she entered a new phase of her journey: one of survivorship.
Blackburn joined the “Dragons of Hope” dragon boat team comprised of cancer survivors, rejoined her baseball team, and met her future husband.
But then, just before their wedding, she had to have a second mastectomy and found herself struggling to make sense of what might lay ahead for her.
“I was confronted with this every day when I looked in the mirror and saw the two scars carved across my chest,” Blackburn recounted.
“The scars themselves didn’t look that bad but they weren’t exactly a thing of beauty.
“I had been through the worst days of my life just when the proverb, ‘Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it turned into a butterfly,’ jumped out at me,” she added.
And the idea struck her to transform herself through art.
She spoke to her friend, Hughes, who instantly wanted to be the one to do the body painting.
“Our first attempt was a few butterflies, using my scars as their bodies,” noted Blackburn.
“I remember the feeling of not wanting to wash off the paint.
“Neither Chantal nor I could imagine how profoundly being painted by her would change my life and help to embrace my scars,” she added.
“We wanted to do it again.”
They then contacted Pioro to capture images of her transformation and “The Butterfly Story” was born in March, 2014.
Blackburn was transformed into a leopard this time–her personal symbol of strength.
“To this day, when I am worried about an appointment or feel I need a little extra courage to get through something, I grab one of my many leopard print items in my wardrobe,” she explained.
Her portrait was the first in “The Butterfly Story” collection. She then got a friend to pose for a second portrait.
“I was a little worried that the project would end there,” Blackburn admitted. “But once other survivors saw the incredible work carried out by our creative team, more and more people signed up.”
The “Butterfly Story” process starts with a consultation, in which survivors share their stories, and ends with a finished image.
Along the way, Hughes and Pioro take the symbols of each person’s journey and what was important to them, and “transform” them.
“I have gained such strength from meeting with the survivors, and it has been a privilege for us to be a part of their journey,” said Blackburn.
“The Butterfly Story” is not over; it is an ongoing project, with five of the newest portraits revealed during Saturday’s luncheon here.
The first round of portraits has been collected in a book entitled “The Butterfly Story,” and some images have been selected for a 2018 calendar now for sale.
The women interviewed in a documentary shown during Saturday’s luncheon all found the experience therapeutic.
“The power and the strength that it gave me, the release that it gave me, to see those scars bared for the public,” said one interviewee.
“Because basically up until then, no one had seen them. They were mine and mine alone.
“It was very enlightening just to reveal them,” she added. “There was freedom in, ‘Here they are. This is what I am. This is who I am. And I’ve made it through.'”
There is a local connection to “The Butterfly Story,” as well.
Breast cancer survivor Donnas Stuart, who is a nurse in Thunder Bay but originally is from Fort Frances, has her portrait, “One More Mile,” included in “The Butterfly Story.”
While Stuart, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, was not in attendance Saturday, her niece, Brienne Lebel was and she shared a few thoughts with the Times about “The Butterfly Story.”
“I think it’s amazing. I think it really empowers them [breast cancer survivors],” she remarked.
“It takes something maybe negative in their life and turns it into something beautiful.”
Each woman’s portrait is customized to their life story and their interests. In Stuart’s case, “One More Mile” refers to her love of running, explained Lebel.
Stuart posed with running shoes and other fitness gear on.
She also is a singer and has four sisters, and so she is depicted with music notes across her torso, as well as a circle of figures with arms interlocked in a supportive embrace.
“The Butterfly Story” trio were brought her after network members Rochelle Duchnicki and Sandy McKinnon saw a feature in a Thunder Bay publication two years ago and contacted them, thinking they’d be a great fit for “Luncheon of Hope.”
“Their story is one of love, bravery, and hope,” noted McKinnon.
After the luncheon was over, network co-chair Elizabeth Leishman-Fortes said she was thrilled with this year’s event.
“I think it was absolutely incredible,” she enthused. “It was a sold-out crowd this year with many not really knowing anything about ‘The Butterfly Story’ until the end of this afternoon.
“We were so lucky to have them come,” added Leishman-Fortes.
“I hope the women attending enjoyed it as much as I did,” she remarked, noting it might be tough to top this luncheon two years from now.
To learn more about “The Butterfly Story,” or to contact them, follow them on Facebook.