Explaining Cancer One Photo At A Time

October 24, 2017

Documentary photographer, Elliott Erwitt was once quoted as saying: “The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”

Nothing rings more true for Melissa Stacy.

A year ago in October, Stacy, 35, found what she thought was a mole on her upper thigh. By the end of the month, the lifetime resident of the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood, Ohio, was diagnosed with melanoma. A month later, she received treatment close to home to remove the melanoma and to biopsy some of the lymph nodes from her right groin.

When the lymph nodes tested positive for cancer cells, she had a second surgery and more lymph nodes were found closer to her abdomen. She had Stage 3C melanoma. It was then that her oncologist researched aggressive treatment plans and referred Stacy to IU Health Simon Cancer Center and Dr. Theodore Logan where she began a clinical trial involving treatment with Pembrolizumab.

Pembrolizumab is an antibody used in cancer immunotherapy. It blocks a protective mechanism on cancer cells, and allows the immune system to destroy those cells.

Stacy was on track to a viable treatment plan but the mother of a 6-year-old daughter, and 3-year-old son, was not sure how to explain the diagnosis and treatment to her young children. Married to her husband, John for eight years, Stacy also has a stepdaughter who is 23.

The two-hour drive to Indianapolis every three weeks can consume the better part of her day – between doctors’ visits and infusion. So on a recent visit, she brought along a professional photographer to document the visit that included CT scans and blood draws.

“My fear is that if I say the word cancer to my children, they will go to school and talk to their peers. When they say, ‘my mom has cancer,’ another kid may respond, ‘my grandma died of cancer,’” said Stacy. “ I do not want my children to be scared of their mother dying. I want photographs to help tell my children the story of my journey when it is appropriate for them to know, or when they start asking more specific questions.”

So on a recent weekday, her younger sister, Michelle Messer, and photographer Lori Hill joined Stacy.

Photos were taken at check-in, during CT scans, blood draws, and a meeting with Dr. Logan.

“We’re doing well,” said Dr. Logan. “She’s tolerating the treatment so far and we’re crossing our fingers things continue to go well.”

Although the photo essay is primarily for her children, Stacy says it’s helpful to her as well.

“I feel blessed to be treated by Dr. Logan. He is extremely thorough and honest. Anya Kjeldsen, the research nurse coordinator, with Dr. Logan, is nothing short of amazing. Throughout my experience, she is always available for any questions I may have and does a wonderful job of explaining all of the details of my treatment plan.”

At the end of her appointment Stacy requested a formal pose with her nurse and doctor and they obliged.

Stacy received a fine arts degree with teaching certification from the University of Cincinnati.

Growing up in Norwood, Stacy was active in high school sports and coached high school volleyball until last year. She has been teaching in Norwood for 10 years; her husband is a Middle School Dean of Students in the same community. Now, the couple is busy chauffeuring their own children to community sports.

“People who know her see her as a sweetheart, a role model, the most loyal and caring person you could every meet – a great sister, mom and friend, the perfect person,” said Stacy’s sister. The sisters live next door to each other.

“We were pregnant together – our daughters are a month apart. Our kids see each other every day. They play on the same sports teams and as soon as they get home from school they run to her house,” said Messer. They also have a brother. Together the siblings, their spouses and children enjoy holidays, family outings and vacations.

Stacy knows it’s not just her own children who may question her cancer.

She wants to lessen the fear for all the kids in her family.

“My legacy for my kids is to know that I continue to live and face challenges and I’m willing to accept support,” said Stacy. “I have the most incredible support system - a wonderful family, a great group of close friends, and every day I go to school I have 600 kids and staff members who surround me with love.”

-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at
T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

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