"You never understand the size of this support community and family until you're in the middle of it. It has just been overflowing, the love and support that has come from everyone. In some ways, this has changed my outlook because you never know what tomorrow holds. I've made it a point to be positive. I know how important the mental aspect of the game is when it comes to health."Charlie Johnson
A recent photo shoot of Kelsey Johnson shaving wife Charlie's head after she started treatment for breast cancer has drawn national attention. The images convey the fear, bravery and strength that are all part of the journey in a fight against cancer.
The couple lives near De Queen, Arkansas.
As many who are receiving cancer treatment do, Charlie was worried about losing her hair. To some, it might seem a small fear in the face of a life-threatening disease, but it's one that weighs heavy on the hearts of those affected.
"I had thought about losing my hair and those thoughts are terrifying," said Charlie, 34, who was diagnosed in May 2019.
But instead of letting her hair fall out a little at a time, she and friend Mandy Parks, who is a professional photographer, collaborated on an idea they thought had the potential to help others — a photo shoot showing Charlie meeting her fear head-on and allowing her husband to shave her head.Gallery: Charlie Johnson
"For me, personally, I thought going completely shaved would be easier than losing hair patches at a time," she said. "I wanted to do this from the time I found out I had cancer so it could possibly help someone else. There are so many women dealing with this or getting ready to deal with it, so many women that need that encouragement to push through and not let the cancer control them."
The photo shoot theme was a collaboration between the two friends.
"Mandy and I actually had the same thoughts. We wanted it to be a vanity set up in a field," Charlie said.
Mandy's creative focus was seeing the process in a different light than one might expect.
"I wanted it to be beautiful, not just in a bathroom. I wanted to make something terrible pretty and beautiful," she said.
Charlie was on the same page.
"I wanted it to be a beautiful experience, the whole set up, all of it. Making cancer beautiful, that was the whole plan of it because cancer is an ugly, ugly thing," Charlie said.
There were some very personal props in the photo shoot, including Charlie's great grandmother's vanity and a necklace her grandmother wore when she was going through treatment for breast cancer a couple of decades before.
"Wearing my grandmother's necklace meant everything to me," she said. "She was a 17-year survivor but we lost her last August to Alzheimer's."
Other items include a $40 pink dress and pink boxing gloves purchased from Amazon.
The days leading up to the photo shoot were fraught with tension. It actually had to be moved up a week because Charlie's hair was falling out fast.
"I noticed an increase in the rate I was losing hair. About a week before the shoot I ran my hands through my hair and a handful came out. I was scared. Every time I touched it I would lose hair. It was very emotional," Charlie said.
Kelsey was the person Charlie chose to shave her head. Former high school sweethearts, they married in May three years after reuniting and just a couple of weeks after Charlie's diagnosis.
"I told him I wanted him to be the one to do it because he's in this just as much as I am," she said. "A lot of people don't think about spouse and caregiver in these situations but they deal with it as much as we do so it was very important that he be there with me."
The photos capture intimate moments between a husband and wife.
"It was hard to do the photo shoot because I was scared I was going to cry," Kelsey said. Of course he did cry but that honest emotion captured on film is one thing that made the photos real for so many people.
The couple laugh talking about the experience now when Charlie says how Kelsey "went for it" as he started shaving her beautiful, blond curls off.
"When she says I went at it, that was just me trying to tackle it. If I'd have went slow it wouldn't have happened," he said.
To this day, Kelsey still can't look at the photos without tearing up.
"I can look at an individual photo but I can't look at the pictures as a story. I can't. I cry every single time," Kelsey said.
The experience was so moving for Mandy that she couldn't see through her camera's viewfinder.
"It was super emotional. I cried the whole time. I had to use the back display on my camera because my little viewfinder is sensored and it filled up with tears so it turned black," Mandy said. "That's never happened before."
Once Mandy posted the photo story, it immediately grabbed attention. Within a few hours, it had blown up into a viral sensation. Charlie, who works the overnight shift as an emergency room nurse at CHRISTUS St. Michael Health System, had gone to sleep when she got home from work. Kelsey was up working from home and keeping an eye on how quickly their story was sweeping the nation.
"I thought if it gets 15,000 shares I'm going to wake Charlie up. The next time I looked down it was at like 30,000," he said.
The story was highlighted by national media outlets including Newsweek and People.com and local news stations all across the country.
Charlie said the popularity of their story was a shock.
"I had to look up what 'going viral' meant," she said.
Mandy downplays her part in the popularity of the photos.
"It resonated because you could see the emotion. What I did isn't what made these pictures beautiful. It's what they did. Anytime you can feel something when you look at a picture, that's any photographer's goal. When you look at Kelsey's picture and he's falling apart and your heart breaks for him and all the caregivers. It resonates. It's real. It's not a posed family photo. It's 100% real and that's what's so beautiful about it."
What started as something meant to empower and inspire other people fighting the same battle ended up blessing her more than she could have imagined. Charlie and Kelsey had gone wig shopping shortly before the photos were released but Charlie said after the support she received from the people across the country, she hasn't worn another wig.
"I haven't worn a wig since the post because of all the support I received from it. I do the post to empower someone else and they empower me right back," she said.
Charlie's diagnosis was a lucky break. She found a lump in her breast and was alarmed. She had a mammogram and ultrasound in April of 2019 but doctors thought it was nothing to worry about and recommended she come back in six months. Within a few weeks the lump, which she describes as superficial, began bothering her.
"By the third week of May, it started getting tender to the touch. It was getting on my nerves and I wanted to get rid of it," she said.
She had the lump removed on June 10. When she went for her follow-up appointment on June 25 she thought she'd be in and out of the doctor's office after they checked her incision which she said was healing nicely. That wasn't the case.
"My surgeon walked in and sat down. He told me my reports had come back and it wasn't OK," she said. "He told me I'm so thankful you wanted this gone and you pushed for this. There's no telling how advanced it would have been."
Charlie was diagnosed with an aggressive type of cancer. At the time of this story she is finishing up chemo treatments then she'll start radiation.
Her prognosis is good but she will be on hormone suppression therapy for five years and she'll have monthly appointments to monitor for recurrence.
Having breast cancer has opened Charlie's eyes to the immense good in other people and has also changed her perspective on her own life.
"You never understand the size of this support community and family until you're in the middle of it. It has just been overflowing, the love and support that has come from everyone," Charlie said. "In some ways, this has changed my outlook because you never know what tomorrow holds. I've made it a point to be positive. I know how important the mental aspect of the game is when it comes to health."