SUFFOLK, Va. — On Sept. 17, 2020, Tamekiah Aguirre’s world stopped when she heard her doctor utter the words “breast cancer.”
“I ran out of the doctor’s office, and I ran into the parking lot of the doctor’s office. I just fell to my knees, and I just cried,” Tamekiah said.
The Suffolk woman thought she’d already fought her battles during her 10 years in the military, but her diagnosis proved to be the most challenging.
"My life was taken hostage... when I was diagnosed," she said.
Two years after her diagnosis, Tamekiah is showing off her scars as part of a photography project aimed to empower women diagnosed with breast cancer.
It’s called The Grace Project.
Tamekiah is part of the “Athena Division” of The Grace Project, which spotlights the active duty military women and veterans affected by breast cancer.
And Tamekiah isn't holding anything back for the photography project; her chest will be completely exposed, revealing the scars she got during her battle with breast cancer.
"I agreed to just disrobe because I felt like me doing that would help somebody else in this journey," she said.
Starting Sept. 24, Tamekiah's photo (along with 50 other military women affected by breast cancer) will be displayed at the Women's Center at Arlington National Cemetery.
Photographer Charise Isis started The Grace Project back in 2009 after doing a boudoir shoot for a woman who'd had a mastectomy as a result of breast cancer.
"It was really, up until that point I think, the most powerful photographic experience that I'd ever had," she said.
From that moment, Charise had a goal to help breast cancer patients feel beautiful, despite their scars.
Charise said she started the "Athena Division" of the project after a friend of hers, who was a veteran, showed her a study that found military women were 20% to 40% more likely to develop breast cancer.
Charise said women's health is often overlooked in the military. She said she's photographed breast cancer patients who claim to have been sent to surgeons who specialize in prostate cancer.
"Women in the military often have to go and be treated by the VA and oftentimes the VA is not set up for women," Charise said.
Tamekiah agreed, saying it's important for military women to be aware of this increased risk, no matter their age.
"There has been a significant rise in the incidents of breast cancer among military women, as well as veterans," Tamekiah said. “That’s probably due to the fact that we’re exposed to a lot of toxins when we're, you know, in uniform.”
Tamekiah said in the beginning, it was hard to look at the changes cancer did to her body. But she reminded herself that she was alive, and this was just part of her journey.
"No matter what our anatomy looks like... there's still so much more to us than just our breasts and those scars," Tamekiah said.
The photography exhibit will be from Sept. 24 through Oct. 9. It is free to the public.
On Oct. 1, there will be an artists reception and panel with "nationally recognized experts," according to the Grace Project's website. For more information, click here.