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Cancer: ‘The battle we didn’t choose’

“The minute I saw her, I knew. There she is. That’s the girl I’m going to marry,” photographer Angelo Merendino said of Jennifer, the woman who indeed became his bride.

Angelo and Jennifer had been married for five months and living in New York City when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2008. After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, she was cleared of cancer. The good news came just after their first anniversary.

But the cancer had metastasized and spread to her brain. On December 22, Angelo Merendino lost his wife of four years. She was 40.

His photo documentary, “The Battle We Didn’t Choose,” follows her fight against cancer. Angelo began the project as a way for family and friends in Ohio to understand what Jennifer was experiencing after phone calls and e-mails didn’t seem to portray the intensity of the situation — or produce a response.

“They didn’t see Jen taking 12 pills, giving herself shots, going in for hospital visits,” he said. “If words weren’t working, then actual photos would jar people. This is serious. We needed people to be more involved.”

Being the subject of a photo essay can be intimidating, but Angelo said Jennifer wanted the photos to be an honest representation of her struggle.

“‘I don’t want to hide anything,’” he recalled her saying. “‘I want to help others — not just women, but anyone with cancer.’”

He found that telling his own story through a lens was challenging.

“It was our life. As a photographer I would see something and react as a photographer. As the story began to tell itself, I would stop and edit photos and realize, this is my wife. And she has breast cancer.”

The impact of these photos will be everlasting because Jennifer is in them, Angelo said, but the experience is what makes the biggest impact. There hasn’t been much time to process the past four years, he said, but now he has time to just stop and think about her.

“The photos get even deeper,” he said. “My admiration of her grows. I remember each moment. They show how strong, brave, courageous Jen was.”

While Angelo’s grieving side wants to curl up in a corner somewhere, the other part of him wants the world to know Jennifer’s story, he said, things about Jennifer that he loved. For instance, in the midst of her turmoil, she started a dragon boat racing team for cancer survivors.

“I want people to know about real heroes, someone who had something thrown at her and responded. That kind of hero.”

He also wants people to appreciate every moment. He wants women to get mammograms and men to do self-checks. He wants people to be more aware of others’ suffering — to know that sometimes you don’t have to know what to say. Sometimes you just say, “I love you.”

He’ll start spreading the word with an exhibit in New York on January 26. And he’ll continue working as a documentary photographer.

“I feel like I can help people with my camera,” he said, “and that is what I want to do.”

- Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN