Last year, at the annual Catwalk for a Cure benefit for breast cancer, keynote speaker Stephanie Frick of Santa Rosa had already gone through the worst of her treatment for breast cancer. Her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes had fallen out and had barely started growing back, and she had not yet had reconstructive surgery on her breasts.
“You feel vulnerable in front of all these people,” recalled Frick, 31. “There I am, with no hair and barely any boobs. This is me.”
Still, the private young mother agreed to give the speech and to display a dozen black-and-white photographs taken by Mariah Smith that documented Frick’s journey from diagnosis at 29 through 12 weeks of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, nine more weeks of chemotherapy and 25 rounds of radiation.
“She’s not a look-at-me type,” said Smith, a professional photographer who usually shoots weddings and women’s portraits. “She really had to push her comfort level ... but she wanted other survivors to have that connection and show that there’s a young woman battling this.”
Now, more than a year and a half after her diagnosis, Frick does not regret the decision to step out of her comfort zone.
“It made me stronger” she said. “And after the speech ... they raised the most money ever.”
The breast cancer she has battled since January 2014 came out of the blue. The risk of developing invasive breast cancer in your 20s is very low — .06 percent, or 1 in 1,732, according to Breastcancer.org.
“I found a lump under my right arm when I was in the shower,” she said. “I had no family history, and no reason to think it would be something big.”
At first, doctors thought it might be an enlarged lymph node, but when it didn’t go away, Frick went back to Kaiser for two mammograms, an ultrasound and, eventually, a biopsy.
“They called me the next day,” she said. “It was my son’s first day of preschool.”
But that wasn’t the end of the bad news. After getting a genetic test, Frick learned that she carried the BRC2 gene mutation, which increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancers in women. The gene produces proteins that help repair damaged DNA, so when they are altered or mutated, they can lead to cancer.
About 5 to 10 percent of breast cancers can be linked to gene mutations, and the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are the most common. For women with a BRCA2 mutation, the risk of breast cancer is 45 percent, and breast cancer that tests positive for either mutation tends to develop more often in younger women.
Frick ended up throwing everything she had at the cancer, starting with a double mastectomy in April 2014 and ending with a complete hysterectomy in January 2015.
“She had a really hard decision, especially since she found out that she had the marker gene,” said Smith, who is friends with Frick’s next-door neighbor, Leyla Hobbs. “Her son was 3 at the time, and she wanted to have more kids.”
Hobbs got the ball rolling with the photography project. Just as Frick started her first chemotherapy treatment, Hobbs arranged for Smith to take a family portrait of Frick, her husband Matt, and their son Michael.
See more stories about breast cancer in Sonoma County here