Imagine that you have just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Imagine that it's stage three of four possible stages of severity. You're only 21 years old. What's more, you've just been deployed to active duty in Afghanistan as a sergeant in the Marines.
For Barbie Ritzco, this was reality. Back in 2010, when she discovered a lump in her left breast, she was preparing to leave for her next tour of duty in Afghanistan. Ritzco chose to go. "I spent most of my time taking care of the troops that were under my charge... I sacrificed my own health and life as long as I could in order to stay and deploy with my unit," she shared with photographer David Jay's The SCAR Project, which chronicles the breast cancer battles of women from all walks of life. In February 2011, four months after arriving in Afghanistan, Ritzco's lump was diagnosed as Stage IIIB breast cancer.
As Barbie discovered, she had inherited a mutated BRCA2 gene, carried by everyone in her family. Both the BRCA2 and BRCA1 genes produce proteins that repair DNA damage and thus suppress tumors. When these genes are mutated, their ability to create cancer-preventing proteins is disrupted; BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations together lead to 5-10% of all cancer cases. "We tend to think we are protected and immune to things because we are given a weapon, a FLAK jacket, and a Kevlar helmet," Barbie told The SCAR Project. "Leaving my troops and my unit behind was and still is harder to deal with than my breast cancer diagnosis."
After returning to the States, Barbie underwent a double mastectomy. She opted not to undergo reconstructive surgery; instead, in 2013, she adorned her chest with a tattoo of a heart (and took the selfie above). Unable to serve as a soldier, Barbie has directed her energy — the astonishing reserves remaining after rounds of chemotherapy — to telling her story and connecting with others diagnosed with breast cancer. She has found purpose in her involvement in The SCAR Project, her contributions to the book of breast cancer stories The Pink Moon Lovelies, and her creation of the support-group Facebook page Flat & Fabulous along with fellow survivor and close friend Sara Bartosiewicz-Hamilton.
"She has said that her life never made more sense than when she was bald and boobless," Bartosiewicz-Hamilton says of Barbie in a blog post from August 15. Sara also reveals that her friend's breast cancer has returned; Barbie is back in the ICU for treatment of related complications. Searching for a gesture of support as Barbie faces her cancer yet again, Sara reposted Barbie's tattooed, "boobless" selfie to the Flat & Fabulous Facebook page. It's a photo of a woman with an open heart, both literally and figuratively — a woman who is no longer in combat, but still a fighter. Basically, it's a selfie worth celebrating.
"Asking for your thoughts, prayers, and healing energy to be sent to my co-founder and the strongest woman I know, Barbie," Sara writes in the photo's caption. "As I was debating which photo to use, I chose this one. She is quite proud of the tattoo, and she wanted the world to see that she truly is FABULOUS. Please, share this photo — she always wanted this to go viral. Let's help do that for her now." View the selfie and learn more about Barbie's story on the Flat & Fabulous Facebook page.