Doctors told Charlie Johnson what she wanted to hear when she first found the lump in her breast. It was likely benign and there was nothing to worry about, they assured her at the mammogram appointment.
Still, the mom and nurse from Gillham, Arkansas, knew something was wrong. She could feel it. And she was right — after a surgeon removed the lump at her insistence, he broke the news. The 34-year-old had breast cancer.
But Charlie didn’t take it sitting down; she pulled on her boxing gloves (figurative and literal) and prepared to fight. Cancer wouldn’t rule her life. She’d face the journey head-on with her husband, Kelsey, and photographer Mandy Parks in a powerful photoshoot capturing her raw, beautiful strength.
Charlie wore a long pink dress complete with a cancer ribbon necklace as she sat and faced the mirror atop a family heirloom bureau set up in a country field. Nearby sat a pair of pink boxing gloves, symbolizing her fight.
Charlie began losing her hair after her first chemotherapy treatment. She hadn’t expected it to happen so fast. She’d already been planning the shoot with Mandy, her friend from church. So, at Mandy’s suggestion, they moved it up to before her next treatment. And Charlie asked Kelsey to be the one to take the rest of her hair… during the shoot.
As Charlie explained, this was more about documenting the unconditional love both she and Kelsey share for each other.
It was about capturing her vulnerability and strength, to empower others facing the same battle.
“If one woman is struggling with the worries, anxiety, fear of losing her hair and sees this post and can get some hope or empowerment to think ‘I can do this,’ then that is exactly what we want,” Charlie said. “I was excited and scared, all at the same time — for myself and my husband and kids.”
Kelsey and Charlie shared “I love yous” throughout the shoot, Mandy recalled.
And at times, even Mandy herself had to take a moment to collect herself.
“It was very emotional. Highly emotional. I had to take a lot of breaks and walk away,” she said.
But perhaps the most touching part of the whole experience happened after Kelsey and Charlie’s cathartic grief over the loss of her hair and what it meant.
Charlie regarded herself in the mirror, alone, her head bald and her pink gloves on. This time, there was no sadness in her eyes — only determination and the assurance that she’d give this battle all she had.
In a Facebook post debuting the photo series, Mandy wrote, “Strong women aren’t simply born. They are made by the storms they walk through. From the pain, mistakes, and heartache we achieve pride and strength.”
“I don’t know who needs to see this today. Or yesterday. Or someone you know might get this phone call tomorrow. Show them what strength looks like. Let them know they are not alone. Stand by them as they kick this like the warrior they are!”
If there’s one thing we can take away from these photos, it’s that Charlie and her family have come out stronger than ever.
Our hearts are with Charlie, her husband, and her children as they stay strong throughout her journey. And while life will get scary and tough, they can face it — together.
Share this story, as Mandy put it, to show others what strength looks like.
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