Published April 08, 2013
In one photograph, Jennifer Merendino is smiling to herself as she walks down a New York City street, her long dark hair blowing in the wind.
In another, she sits in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV – her head shaved as she grimaces in intense pain.
The images are just two in a series of photographs taken of Jennifer from 2010 to 2011, which depict her struggle with metastatic breast cancer. The series, titled “The Battle We Didn’t Choose,” was created by her husband Angelo Merendino, as he attempted to show their family and friends the difficulties he and his wife dealt with on a daily basis.
“We felt our family and friends didn’t understand how serious things had become,” 39-year-old Merendino, who lives in New York City, told FoxNews.com.
“I started making these photos, because we felt people needed to see,” he said. “The words weren’t working.”
The photos show Jennifer throughout her cancer treatment, from shaving her head in the bathroom to using a walker to go for a simple walk outdoors. The photos are both intricately beautiful and utterly tragic, with the last photo depicting the heartbreaking end to the story: Jennifer’s gravestone after she passed away on December 22, 2011.
Yet, one ending to a devastating tale has now sparked a completely new beginning full of hope. What started as a photo project to garner much needed support from the family has now turned into a viral sensation that has captivated people across the world. Merendino’s Facebook page, “My Wife’s Fight With Breast Cancer” has gained more than 41,000 Likes, and his photos of Jennifer have been shared by numerous web sites and news outlets around the globe.
For Merendino, the response to his photos has been heartwarming and ultimately therapeutic after the passing of his wife.
“There’s a lot in the world that’s negative, and even though Jen passed, I’m happy we could put something out there that’s about love and life,” Merendino said. “These photos aren’t just about cancer, they’re about living life.”
‘Like a movie’
Merendino first met Jennifer in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2005, when he was applying to work as a bartender at a bar near his home. He had been waiting in the bar’s parking lot for a manager to show, when Jennifer finally arrived to interview him.
For him, the moment was unforgettable.
“It was just like a movie,” Merendino said. “I saw Jennifer walking out, and everything went into slow motion. I knew right there I was going to marry her.”
While the two did not date right away, they became fast friends. When Jennifer moved to New York for a new job a few months later, she and Merendino continued to keep in touch. Finally, six months after they had first met, he worked up the courage to tell her he was crazy about her.
“I told her I had a crush on her. I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe I just said that,’ but then she said she felt the same way,” Merendino said.
They became a couple in March 2006, and just a few months later in October, Merendino moved to New York to be with Jennifer. The night he flew into town, he had an engagement ring in his pocket. He took her out to one of their favorite restaurants, where he didn’t waste any time getting down one knee.
“She yelled, ‘Shut up!’” Merendino joked. “But then she grabbed the ring, and I knew it was a ‘Yes.’”
A little less than a year later, Merendino and Jennifer were married in a small ceremony in Central Park, surrounded by friends and family.
But sadly, their honeymoon period was cut very short.
Five months after his wedding, Merendino got a devastating phone call from his new wife while out on a delivery for work: Her doctors were certain she had breast cancer.
A new normal
Jennifer’s diagnosis turned the couple’s world upside down. The two were thrust into the world of cancer therapy and surgery – with every second of every day proving to be intense and exhausting.
To combat her cancer, Jennifer underwent a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and reconstructive surgery. Throughout her treatments, Merendino said their family and friends were nothing but supportive, sending cards, stopping by with food and even throwing fundraisers to help pay for medical bills.
And as for Merendino, he tried to provide nothing but constant support.
“It basically became my focus: What does Jennifer need?” he said. “It was morning, noon and night.”
To everyone’s joy and relief, Jennifer’s cancer went into remission in 2008, and she was able to return to work. Meanwhile, she and Merendino were trying to put their lives back together.
“We were exhausted, confused and scared,” Merendino said. “… Mortality had been thrust in our faces. Our lives had been leveled, and we had to figure out who we were again.”
Instead of becoming lost or distant, the couple only grew closer after Jennifer’s bout with cancer, and for the next two years, they were able to get their marriage back on track. But in the back of their minds was a constant worry: that the cancer would return. It was a fear that never went away – and was devastatingly realized in April 2010, when doctors found new spots during one of Jennifer’s checkups.
Her cancer was back, and it had spread to her liver and her bones.
The world they had tried to move away from had become their new normal once again. But one thing was different this time around. The support originally shown by their family and friends was absent. They weren’t getting the phone calls they used to get or the help they used to receive, and the couple needed that kind of support now more than ever.
Frustrated by the silence, Merendino decided to get out his camera.
Giving cancer a face
The couple wanted to showcase it all. Jennifer was in constant pain from nearly four years of cancer treatment, and hospital stays of more than a week were not uncommon. Eventually the cancer spread to her hip, causing it to swell up and become very painful – prompting her to use a walker just so she could move around.
With each new development, Merendino was there – both as her support system and as her documentarian.
“She was pretty comfortable with the camera,” Merendino said. “I think Jennifer understood the importance of this. She knew that she was always priority number one and the camera came second. She trusted me, and she knew I wasn’t going to make a photograph at an inappropriate time. We encouraged and supported each other.”
When taking the photographs, very little was off-limits. Some images show a bald Jennifer performing simple tasks like putting on makeup, while others offer a much more heartbreaking glimpse into what living with cancer is like – showing Jennifer sick in bed or holding her head in pain.
The ultimate message, Merendino said, was not to show Jennifer in a harsh light. It was more of a silent plea to their loved ones that they needed their support during this extremely difficult time.
And the photos did just that. Soon friends and family were back in the habit, supporting the couple in just the way they needed it. But the images also accomplished something Merendino and Jennifer did not expect: They garnered the support of thousands of people they had never even met.
Merendino had put the photo series online for easier access, where it ultimately caught the eye of a Reddit.com user, who posted a link to Merendino’s work on the popular social news and entertainment website. Soon, the couple was getting messages from countless individuals all over the world, who said the photographs changed the way they viewed illness.
“One woman wanted to quit and said she saw Jennifer and knew she couldn’t,” Merendino said. “I get comments from people with breast cancer, who say it helps them feel not alone. People say they know someone going through cancer, and this helps them know what to do.”
“Knowing something good is coming out of this, I’m very thankful we could do that,” he added.
As showcased in the photographs, Jennifer’s health continued to deteriorate, and the dreadful reality had begun to sink in for the couple.
“We knew at that time how serious things were, but we were aggressive in our treatment,” Merendino said. “Jennifer was a fighter, and she never wanted the doctors to say we should take a break. She wanted to fight – she wanted to live. It was challenging as Jen’s husband, because I was the same way. I wanted the doctors to do everything – but Jen dying was something we knew the reality of.”
In those last precious days, Merendino said they grew closer and closer, as they made every effort to celebrate the days they had together with family and friends. She was still smiling, Merendino said, still laughing up until the end.
Just a few days after Jennifer’s 40th birthday in December of 2011, things took a turn for the worse following an incredibly long stay at the hospital. It was then that her oncologist informed Merendino that they were going to lose her.
In the series, a photo of Jennifer’s empty bed says it all.
Looking back, Merendino says the photographs have really helped him in the wake of Jennifer’s death – to remember the kind of person she had been.
“For me the photographs have become really therapeutic,” Merendino said. “I had to put a lot of feelings away, because I knew I couldn’t say them in that moment. They help me to remember how strong Jennifer was, by seeing her in the hospital and seeing a portrait of her smiling or laughing. It helps because there are many things I would have forgotten if I didn’t have these photos to remind me.”
Knowing that Jennifer is still teaching others has really kept him going. And looking back at his photos, Merendino still remembers just how full of love and at peace she was in those last couple of days.
“The night she came home from the hospital after we found out her liver was failing, we thought she might be alive for three days maybe a week,” Merendino said. “We came home, and some of our family and close friends were there, in which we spent a very surreal evening together. When everyone left, I asked her what she loved most that day. I’ll never forget how she turned and looked and said, ‘I loved it all.’”