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See more stories about breast cancer in Sonoma County here

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.”

Family portrait

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

“I got about 30 portraits of the whole family to document how her life was at that moment,” Smith said. “Then Leyla and I talked about documenting the entire journey, and Stephanie was really open to it. We wanted to document her story because she was so young and it would raise awareness.”

Smith took mostly black-and-white photos because she prefers that medium for telling a story.

“Color is distracting, she said. “When it’s black and white, you can get to the emotion ... and this had a whole lot of emotions attached to it.”

One of the things that struck her immediately was Frick’s smile, which “just lights up a room.” But as they got better acquainted, she began to admire the young mother’s quiet strength.

“She just owned every step of the process,” Smith said. “She turned into a very strong woman and was very graceful about it. There’s not a lot of whining in that woman.”

At the outset of the diagnosis, Frick said, one of the most difficult things was having to tell her family.

“I was really honest with my son ... and he was really good,” she said, “but one of the hardest things was telling my parents. As an only child, I’m so close to my parents, and I felt like I couldn’t tell them.”

Yet their support was key when, after chemotherapy, Frick was too weak to care for her young son.

“I think the toughest thing for her was not being able to be the mommy she wanted to be,” Smith said.

Support in Santa Cruz

Frick also received support from a young mother in Santa Cruz who also was coping with breast cancer.

“I met her on Facebook, and she was eight months ahead of me,” Frick said. “She’s a nurse, so she was able to explain things to me.”

Early on, when her hair started coming out in her hairbrush, Frick decided to shave her head, gathering family and friends around as her husband — a burly Petaluma cop — snipped and sheared off her long, dark locks.

“I tried to be as much in control as I could be,” said Frick. “I had a faux hawk for a week, and then I shaved it all off.”

In April 2014, she had a double mastectomy and 14 lymph nodes removed at the Kaiser Outpatient Clinic.

“It was terrifying,” she said. “I was so nervous, but a couple of days before, my husband said, ‘Don’t get nervous yet.’ There’s no point.”

To give her friend courage, Smith asked Frick to come to her studio so she could create portraits of her in war paint. They ended up as a video.

“She was battling with such a beautiful grace, and I wanted to make sure she saw that,” Smith said. “I wanted to send her into that operating room feeling strong and protected.”

More chemotherapy

After healing for a month, Frick started three more rounds of chemotherapy. By this time, her weight had dropped to under 100 pounds, and her husband had to give her Neupagen injections five days after each chemo infusion to boost her white blood cells.

Still, on Mother’s Day 2014, when all the Major League Baseball teams rally against breast cancer, Frick went to a Giants game with a large contingent of family and friends. Smith tagged along to capture the happy moment.

After the surgery and the second round of chemotherapy, Frick decided to go ahead with 25 rounds of radiation, although the process seemed even more frightening than the chemotherapy.

“I started crying when I got my tattoos and saw the big machine,” she said. “But I didn’t want to regret not doing enough.”

A photo of Frick waiting alone for her radiation treatment is Smith’s favorite, because it portrays the loneliness of the long-distance cancer warrior.

“She was so constantly surrounded by people, and it was hard to capture how alone she was,” Smith said. “That image shows that side of it.”

Finally, just before the October 2014 Catwalk for a Cure, Smith took a final portrait of Frick, cancer-free and with her light-up-a-room smile still intact.

“I knew right away that it (the photo project) was going to be transformational for her and her family,” Smith said. “In 30 years, she’ll be able to see how loved and supported she was, and that there was someone to hold her hand and make her laugh.”

Added Frick, “While I was going through treatment, it was such a blur. To be where I am now, and look at where I was then, shows me how proud I am for having gotten through it, and how blessed I am for all the support.”

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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