Jen Rozenbaum on Regaining Your Identity When Tragedy Strikes

February 15, 2019

By Jen Rozenbaum

All Photos © Jen Rozenbaum

As I write this, it’s December 27, 2018. Just one short year ago, on this same date, I underwent my last chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Prior to chemotherapy, I had a bilateral mastectomy to remove the cancer and increase my chance at a long life. At only 42 years old, I lost my breasts.

The irony of a boudoir photographer losing her breasts isn’t lost on me. In my first days after being diagnosed, trying to make sense of that consumed my brain. How did this happen? Why did this happen? What am I going to do with this? I contemplated these questions over and over.

In the weeks prior to my diagnosis, I spent many hours meditating and asking the universe how I could reach and help more women, and amplify my mission. Although this certainly wasn’t the journey I was hoping for, it is the one I was given. I decided that this was happening for me, not to me, and so I had to give it purpose.

That meant I had to go public with my journey—very public. I decided to tell my community about my diagnosis of stage 2B Invasive Lobular Carcinoma on Facebook. I then took to Facebook Live just a few days prior to my mastectomy. This was incredibly hard. My heart was pounding, but I knew in my heart it was vital for me to educate anyone who would listen on how I found my cancer and how important self-detection is.

However, the live video went beyond that. I was open about my fears, like my doctor telling me I might not ever feel hugs again. I was honest about feeling shame and not understanding how this could happen to me. I was upfront about how boudoir photography reminded me at the time that I am worthy no matter what my body looked like and that my femininity goes way beyond my breasts. And I cried. Ugly-cried.

I also feared greatly about my family and my business. It is hard enough to be an entrepreneur on a good day. How on Earth was I going to make it through cancer and be present for my family and my business? I also wondered about my future as a boudoir photographer. Would I be able to take photos of women that were “whole” after my mastectomy? Would I be able to connect with my clients in the same way? Would they even book me if they knew what I was going through?

Education and traveling is a large part of what I love about my job. Knowing I had to go through chemo meant I had to be careful about travel. I would get chemotherapy every other week, so I would make sure on the weeks I didn’t have chemo that I could attend conferences and other industry-related events. I was scared, though. I figured I was going to take time off from traveling and that companies I worked with would just find a replacement for me.

Cancer was already taking my breasts. Was it going to take my career too?

I again took to Facebook and did a live video to speak about this. I didn’t know what to expect. Would people think I was being ungrateful that I was worried about my career when my health was at risk? Was my being worried about my career real? Or was it something I made up in my head? I decided that I was going to trust my gut and be authentic. This is what I was feeling, so I was ready to put it out there.

The reaction to this video was unbelievably overwhelming. Industry leaders from many companies you all know and love reached out to me on a personal level with unwavering support. Potential clients that were on the fence about booking a shoot now did, just to support me. It was mind-blowing. Juggling work while going through treatment and recovery was difficult, but it was also life- saving. It allowed me to feel like the “old me.”

Picking up the camera or speaking at a convention allowed for distractions of my mind. This was especially needed when my mind would go to dark places (yes, even with a positive outlook, I still had very dark moments). It was sometimes the only reason I could think of to get out of bed that day.

Marianne, a fellow breast cancer survivor and advocate.

One of the most special days for me while I was in the thick of treatment was when I had the opportunity to photograph a fellow breast cancer survivor, Marianne, who is also an advocate for women who go flat after mastectomy surgery. (By going flat, I mean they don’t have any type of reconstruction.) Marianne radiated strength and femininity. She was both strong and soft. She smiled, and it was a powerful reminder that one day I would smile too. When she left the shoot, I turned to my friend and makeup artist Diana, and said, “Wow, isn’t Marianne amazing? I wish I could be like her. She’s gone through so much and she is so strong and magnetic.” Diana cocked her head to the side, looked at me for a moment and replied, “Jen, you are like her. You are exactly like her.”

So often when I have dark moments, when I doubt my strength or worry starts to seep in, I look back at those photos of Marianne. Just seeing them reconnects me to the power that I have deep down inside me: the feminine power that reminds me to always come back to who I truly am and to put myself out into the world authentically for the purpose of empowerment and enlightenment.

Since my surgeries and chemotherapy have ended, I have continued to make videos about my journey. I have also started a podcast (called Shamelessly Feminine), written a book (due out later this year) and I have photographed many more survivors, including myself in a self-portrait project to show my interpretation of what breast cancer is like. Working on these projects is my therapy.

My chemotherapy ended one year ago, but the journey to healing has only begun. The inward scars take much longer to heal than the outward ones. Breast cancer isn’t only a disease of the breast, but very much a disease of the mind. Photography is helping me heal from PTSD. It has dug me out of holes that I slid down at times. It gives me an outlet of expression when words just can’t be spoken.

Today, I am grateful for my health and I am incredibly thankful for the art, for the industry and for the community of photography and photographers who stood by me and supported me when I needed it the most.

Jen Rozenbaum is a New York-based boudoir photographer and veteran WPPI speaker who proves time and again that you can own your world if you live fearlessly, think audaciously and act spontaneously.

Related: 10 Questions for Jen Rozenbaum: Boudoir Photographer, Badass Reader and Hot Sauce Disciple 

To Build a Boudoir Brand, Focus on the Experience

6 Natural Boudoir Poses That Will Flatter Clients

Top Tips For Posing the Feminine Form by Jen Rozenbaum