Staff Sgt. Russ Scalf
19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
I’m sure by now most people don’t need to be reminded that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
How could you have missed it? With all the ribbons, “Save the Ta-Tas” T-shirts, bracelets, earrings, shoe laces and other pink doodads, it’s fairly hard to forget.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a soapbox about the big business of breast cancer. Anything that brings attention to the importance of early detection and funds to research for innovative technologies and advanced treatments is a good thing, period.
What is often forgotten in the sea of pink are the individuals on the front lines who are actually fighting the disease. In the three months between the time football players stop wearing pink shoes and the Super Bowl, roughly 58,000 women and 500 men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and they each have a story.
Three years ago, I had the distinct and life changing privilege of telling the story of Capt. Candice Adams Ismirle. Ismirle, a press operations officer at the Pentagon, was a vibrant and outgoing 29-year-old public affairs officer, co-worker and friend. In October 2010, she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. Triple negative is a particularly aggressive and vile form of the disease, known for its ability to grow fast, avoid detection and spread to other parts of the body. When she and her husband, Maj. Ryan Ismirle, an F-15E pilot, agreed to open their entire lives to the prying eyes of my digital camera, I’m not sure that any of us could have predicted the ways it would change our lives.
Over the course of the next 18 months, I recorded their journey as she combated her disease. On a typical day of documenting, I would leave my house around 4 a.m. to make the hour-long trip in to Washington, D.C., and accompany her to a seemingly endless regiment of appointments and treatments. After waiting out the effects of the day’s dose of chemical medicine, I would pack up and head for home, usually getting to sleep around midnight.
That was the easy part. My role in this drama was utterly simple compared to Capt. Ismirle’s. While undergoing treatment, she wrote notes to the cancer that was attacking her body. The culmination of our efforts was a photo and video roadmap to fighting breast cancer titled “Pink Kisses; cancer MY way,” which can be seen here. I could describe to you about the heartbreak and hard times, of which there were plenty, but that’s just not Candice’s story. She chose to do something different, and purely remarkable. She was resilient in the situation she was dealt, and vowed to never allow herself to play the role of cancer’s victim. Whichever way her story ended, she made one modest promise; to celebrate the life she had.
In one of her notes she wrote, “You’re serious, nothing to take lightly, and I respect the gravity of you because you take life, but I choose to minimize you because you were never going to take mine… It’s important you know that I am not your victim. I choose to celebrate life, rather than simply survive it. Love, Candice.”
I have made a promise also, to genuinely care about every human captured in each frame I shoot and every line I write; usually my fellow Airmen. I never fully grasped the power of an image or responsibility that comes along with telling someone’s story before Pink Kisses.
That idea of caring for each other is a view shared by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Cody. During a recent visit to Osan Air Base, South Korea, Welsh said, “Caring for each other is one of the Air Force’s three keys to success, along with common sense and communication. I know that all of you care a lot — you care about each other, your professions, your families — but think about the job. We have to fight and win the nation’s wars,” Welsh said. “We’ll never be good enough at that job so we have to get better all the time. Think about the people you work with, that you’re sitting beside, think about your family and theirs. We’ll never care enough about them — we have to care more.”
The first step, Welsh continued, is to learn about each other.
“Every Airman has a story,” he said. “Their stories are incredible, unique, uplifting, sad, inspirational, just incredible, and everybody in here has one. If you don’t know the story you can’t lead someone as well as you could otherwise. It’s really that’s simple. It’s all about understanding each other, because the better we know each other, the better we’ll take care of each other, the prouder we’ll be, and the better our Air Force will be. That’s the Air Force I think we all want to be part of.”
Last week, I received a painful message from a colleague. Ismirle’s cancer had returned and she was in surgery to remove a tumor from her brain. I immediately felt as helpless and vulnerable as she had appeared in many of my images.
Yesterday I booked a flight to D.C., I am headed back for round two. While I’m only an observer with a camera, I’m going to do the only thing I know how; help my wingman kick cancer’s ass, again.
PHOTO: Staff Sgt. Russ Scalf and Capt. Candice Adams Ismirle pose for a studio photo April 8, 2011, at Fort George G. Meade, Md. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Justin Pyle)