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Cancer Survivor Uses Photography To Highlight Her Journey; 'It's Given My Cancer A Different Aspect'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Someone you know is affected by breast cancer. You statistically can't avoid it. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with the disease in her lifetime.

A suburban survivor wants to build compassion and understanding of the breast cancer battle being waged by your friend, neighbor, or co-worker so she took photos throughout her own fight.

CBS 2 made a choice to show you her very raw images without any editing. That includes pictures of her double mastectomy.

Lauren Victory shares this powerful story of powerful pictures.

Stitch by stitch, Sam Oester fixes an Elsa costume she wears to comfort sick children. Her Elmhurst basement is full of her creations: various cosplay dresses and superhero outfits. The kids she volunteers with have no idea she's a warrior in real life.

You see, as she smiles alongside kids with cancer, Oester has been battling her own: both endometrial and breast cancer. She stopped counting at 30 surgeries.

"The first several years, I thought I handled it really well," Oester said who had a hysterectomy and more recently, a double mastectomy. "I felt like I was physically losing parts of myself."

At some point, a creative lightbulb went off: use photography to freeze moments in time, document changes and remind her what once was.

"The original plan was three sets of photos before, right after the mastectomy and after the reconstruction," Oester said.

She tapped Hayley Stein, Eddie Bonneau, Gerry Chan, Danny Medina, and Sarah Feldman for help with the project. The photographers had no hesitations.

"The past can't come back so I think it's really cool to capture that and keep it in the moment forever," said Stein who shot the pre-surgery photos. "I'm really happy to be a part of that."

Oester carefully selected a single-word title for each set of photos including "Strength" and "Change" for her before-mastectomy images. "Grief" and "Support" came to mind for the pictures showing life after her breasts were removed.

She struck a Rosie the Riveter-like pose in the post-mastectomy images titled "Resilience" where she looks strong as can be despite the hardest fight of her life. Chan took that series of photos.

"She was the rock that really kept us all together from really breaking down," he said of the emotional shoot.

Medina took the set called "Conquest" that shows Oester in a warrior costume after her breast reconstruction surgery.

"I was blown away and I immediately started crying. Like, getting those back made it feel like it was really almost over. I had really almost made it," said Oester.

She admits she originally wanted the pictures for her own safekeeping, but something compelled her to share.

"It [the photos] helped me see myself in a different way at a very low point," Oester said. "I decided I was going to very publicly post it all. Along with my story."

The breast cancer patient shared the raw images on social media. She was nervous - especially about the post-mastectomy photos - but comments poured in from others battling the same battle.

"[People] saying they felt seen," said Oester. "I was putting into words things they hadn't been able to vocalize."

That gave Oester the strength to show her vulnerable side again.

Our CBS2 video camera was there as she exposed her battle wounds for another round of still photos for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Temporary tattoos called Scar-Art flanked the sides of her breasts for the shoot.

"For women to put over their scars to transform their scars into something beautiful," said Oester, explaining Scar-Art.

She plans to add the images to her ongoing public photo project.

"It's given my cancer a different aspect. It has a purpose other than just taking a lot from me," she said.

Oester is already in remission from her endometrial cancer. She finds out soon if she is free of breast cancer, too. That adds up to 8 ½ years on the mend.


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