I met Sharon King at a cancer support group in 2011. Six months into my time with the group, I shared the idea my friend Julie and I had for a photography-based art project with cancer survivors called The Identity Shift Project. It would be a forum for people to publicly project their identity beyond being a cancer case, no matter where they were in their cancer journey, and share their stories.
Then Sharon was away from group for a couple of weeks. The day she returned, when I sat down next to her, she silently pushed a magazine clipping on the couch cushion over to me. I looked at it. Torn out of a magazine called Midwest Living, it had a short article entitled Photography’s Healing Power – Patients with terminal illnesses often grapple with worries about their self-image.
I looked at Sharon, who locked eyes with me and said “Do it.” I realized that she gave me the clipping not to show me that someone had beaten me to the idea, but to show that there was already a demonstrated need I could serve by launching the project. Once we launched it, I invited her to participate, and she said yes. You can view her gallery here. While Cancer Shift tells many stories, it’s informed in particular by the wisdom, compassion, humor, and candor Sharon shared with me and countless others who knew her. Sharon was a kindred spirit and special friend. She passed away October 21, 2014 – a loss beyond words. I knew her only three short years, but her impact on me has transcended the boundaries of time and affiliation. When knowing someone changes who you are, that is an identity shift.
To say Sharon was a highly respected leader in philanthropy is probably an understatement. I had almost no idea who she was until after she’d died, because I didn’t meet her under professional circumstances. Our professions had changed: we’d both become professional cancer survivors – a job nobody wants. It’s highly unlikely we would have met professionally before cancer, but I thank my lucky stars that I met her, because this was a friendship that transcended the situation we found ourselves in. Just because you and someone work at the same company, go to the same school, or come from the same country, doesn’t mean you will become friends with her. Just because you meet someone who also has cancer doesn’t mean you will become friends with her either. I was fortunate. There are a handful of cherished friends I’ve made in CancerLand. Sharon was one them.
Cancer Shift is dedicated to her.
It’s important to state here that, in addition to Sharon, one other participant in Cancer Shift has passed away as of this writing. I will write about that participant in a future blog post. We all want the rest to remain around for a long and indeterminate time – the way we’d like it to be for all of us.
Cancer Shift doesn’t show who is “beating cancer.” (What “beating cancer” really means is dying of something else – perhaps heart disease, nut allergy, or getting hit by a bus – as long as it’s not cancer-induced.) Cancer Shift shares stories of resilience that remain valid even after the people whose stories they are die. We can talk about them without being morbid, fearful, or worst of all, maudlin. These stories are invitations to you from people making sense of their physical pathologies, mortality, and ultimately their humanity.