Self-portrait, courtesy of Loesje Kessels

Eleven years ago my sister got sick. A brain tumor with only given months to live. We went from being young and wild, traveling and partying, working hard to pursue our dreams to chemotherapies and daily radiation. She then had to undergo two brain surgeries. For seven and a half months I stayed with her nearly 24/7; in the hospital, during her treatments and we even slept in the same bed every night. It wasn’t until that devastating night of July 14, 2011 when she peacefully passed away in my arms.

Moving forward in life without her was, and still is, a difficult task for my myself, my brother and most of all my parents. After this entire ordeal I felt, with every fibre in my body, that I never wanted to have anything to do with cancer again for the rest of my life. Of course, this was simple unrealistic.

Fast forward 6 years; I was living my dreams in Dubai and working as a fashion and beauty photographer with my sister as the inspiration and driving force in my career. When I spent the summer of 2017 in the Netherlands we found out that my mother tested positive for the BRCA2 gene. It felt as a big shock at first. I felt angry because I had decided I didn’t want cancer to have any place in my life anymore, but I realised that this wasn’t a decision in my hands. Of course I also felt blessed and relieved because it was not yet cancer – she was not yet sick. Soon after, she underwent a laparoscopic oophorectomy. A prophylactic mastectomy was not needed as per the oncologist’s advice as the high risk decreases again after 65 years of age. Thankfully, yearly MRI’s and mammograms should keep her healthy.

But then there was me. This meant I had a 50% chance of carrying the BRCA gene too. The first two years I did not proceed with the genetic tests. Something about it being very expensive in Dubai but honestly, I think I was just not ready to hear it. The next two years saw many MRI’s, mammograms, ultrasounds and blood tests. And every time I underwent any of these, I was reminded of my sister.

One particular test came back showing a cyst in my left breast. The next weeks I lived in fear worrying about what it might be. Thankfully the results came back negative. It made me realise that I had to find out whether I was a carrier of the gene. I owed it to my family, my children, and to myself. In October 2019 I did the genetic test with high hopes it would come back negative. I
just wanted to push cancer as far to the back of my mind as possible. My gut feeling was telling me differently, and it was right; my results came back positive.

At first I broke down. I was too busy living and did not want cancer take up any more space in my life than it already had. I felt I was too young to have constant check ups in the hospital or make decisions on undergoing preventative surgeries. But, I was also too young to get sick or even die. It was then that I realised; I am one of the lucky ones – I was one step ahead. Many women, and men, have never had that privilege. I have been given power to take matters into my own hands and do what I can to stay healthy. Maybe there was a guardian angel looking out for me.

Fast forward to October 2021 the path I choose on this journey is still uncertain as I try to come to a decision. There is no right answer and the only one that can make that decision is myself. In these past 2 years I was also diagnosed with pre-stage cervical cancer cyst and a (non-life threatening) skin cancer mole that were both surgically removed. It can feel like a dark cloud is hanging over my head and I am waiting to see if the storm will break out. There are days were I wake up and go to sleep feeling fear. Fear for the future, fear for my boys. But my father once told me ‘He who fears he will suffer, already suffers because he fears’. I remind myself of that and turn it around to feel grateful, immensely grateful for my health each day. Grateful that my guardian angel is looking out for me.

It has made me appreciate and love life more than I ever did before. I am determined to not let the big, bad C outshine my life and to make the most of every day; be passionate, love hard, chase dreams, make unforgettable memories and have fun along the way.

As I was going through this journey I was fortunate enough to join a group of women here in the UAE who are all BRCA+, many of whom have already undergone double preventative mastectomies and oophorectomies. Each have their own, different path in this journey. They are an inspiration to me and that is how the idea came to photograph these women. To honor them and what they have been through to stay healthy and raise more awareness for BRCA+ and breast cancer patients.