Local Heroes

Our annual profile of a half-dozen people making Tucson a better place to live

A Pitbull With a Smile

Photographer Nadia Larsen reminds women facing cancer treatment that they're beautiful

Now that Nadia Larsen is cancer free, she has a New Year's resolution: "I'm gonna be a selfish bitch."

Before Larsen got cancer, she was supermom. She did it all and put her husband's and children's needs before her own.

"When you're dead and gone, nobody's gonna put a big statue there, reading 'Mother of the Year,'" she says. "My goal now is to take care of me."

When the centenarian saguaro in her front yard fell over, she didn't care. When her husband asks her to find things—a frying pan, scissors, etc.—she tells him to find it himself. In planning her breast reconstruction surgery, she told her doctor she didn't need a nipple.

"Why would I have a nipple reconstructed on a fake boob?" she says. "If somebody doesn't like it, fine. I'm not going to be on a nudist beach, and if I am—I don't care."

Nadia may not give a flying fart what people think of her, but she does care what women dealing with breast cancer think of themselves. That's why she started the Nadia Strong Foundation, doing free photo shoots of women with breast cancer.

"When you're going through cancer, you feel like hell, so you look like hell," she says. "I'm trying to show them that you can be beautiful beyond breast cancer."

During what Larsen calls her "year from hell," she had chemotherapy, radiation, a bilateral mastectomy, surgery to remove lymph nodes and two reconstructive surgeries. In after-surgery photos, a bright-red patch on her shoulder blade, over a zipper of black stitches, documents the reaction of radiation coming through her, from the front of her body.

While going through treatment herself, Larsen connected with other women she met at her clinic. One woman was struggling financially under the burden of cancer-treatment costs and, Larsen says, was too proud and embarrassed to ask for help.

So Larsen started making calls on the woman's behalf to places like the American Cancer Society, which led to assistance with medication costs and rent. Thereafter, the woman compared Larsen's fierce tenacity to a "pitbull with a smile."

"Just having breast cancer, women feel like they did something wrong," Larsen says. "My focus is to help women, which literally helps me."

Helping other women helps Larsen continue to heal, she says. Talking, relating and exchanging ideas with the only ones who can really understand what she went through feeds her soul. And one bit of advice she gives them: "Find a passion. I turned my passion into a foundation."

Last month, Yolanda Weinberger did a photoshoot with Larsen. The photos show her in a pink dress, matching the flowers behind her. She has a bald head and radiant smile. Weinberger says the photos are a memorial to her journey through breast cancer and a remembrance of her defiance.

"What a way to turn something horrible into something redemptive," Weinberger says about the photoshoot. "Even though my body is being destroyed, I refuse to be defined by that."

Larsen did another shoot of Weinberger with her family to use as Christmas cards. The experience reminded her that she's loved and supported. Weinberger has five chemo treatments and several surgeries still to go. She's also documenting her journey, at yolandaweinberger.com.

On the Nadia Strong website, which Larsen recently launched with the help of her friend Robert Hernandez, she shares her coping and recovery tips. Larsen detoxed from chemo with a naturopath, whose contact info is on the website. She also switched to an organic, vegan diet and avoids as much stress as she can.

Women can also document their stories and connect through the website (a segment that's just getting started). And people and businesses can offer services to help women with breast cancer.

Larsen's also looking for donors and sponsors to help her open a photography studio. People can donate or buy ad space on the site for a small fee.

Hernandez met Larsen when she owned Choc-Alot, a gourmet chocolate store with treats she made herself. They became friends on Facebook, where she started documenting her cancer treatment. Hernandez followed her journey and tried to put himself in her place.

"She knows how to tell a story," he says. "She's got a way to open your eyes."

When Larsen was nearly halfway through treatment, she brought her doctor a present. Going into the office with a tray of handmade chocolates, she shared the elevator with a woman who looked down at the tray curiously.

When Larsen handed the gift to Dr. Brooks, he recognized the chocolates immediately. "Chocolate boobs," he said. "Just what I need."

Larsen couldn't wait for cancer to be in her past and to move forward, but she never let it dull her sense of humor. As soon as her hair began to grow back, she died it pink. And when people asked her about it, she told them it just grew in that way.

"Cancer is not written on your forehead," Larsen says. "You're not defined by cancer. Feel like a model for a few hours. Feel good about yourself and your fight and moving on with your life."

Danyelle Khmara

Women with breast cancer can set up a free photoshoot with Larsen by going to the Nadia Strong website at nadiastrong.org or calling her at (520) 245-8888. To make a donation or advertise, go to the "connect" and "partner" tabs on the site.

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