Last Thursday, Tennessee mother of three and breast cancer survivor Kristi Tavenner, 38, underwent breast reconstruction surgery. "It felt like the end of everything," she says of completing her recovery plan; after detecting a cancerous breast lump in her right breast last April, she underwent a double mastectomy and four rounds of chemotherapy, and is now cancer-free.
On the same day as Tavenner's reconstructive surgery, the Love What Matters Facebook group shared portraits of the mother and her 7-year-old daughter, Rose, which were taken before Tavenner's last round of chemotherapy by Kellie Pizza of Kellie Rose Photography, . They've since gone viral.
In the photo series,both Tavenner and her daughter have bare heads – but that's nothing new for Rose, who is perfectly healthy despite the alopecia diagnosis she received at age 5. The condition occurs when a person's own immune system attacks healthy hair follicles, leading to hair loss, according to the National Alopecia Areata Foundation. There's no known cure or way to predict whether hair will eventually grow back.
Although Rose received a wig after losing her hair over the course of four months, she bravely opts not to wear it, nor hats, or headbands, so long as her friends don't tease her – and Tavenner says they generally don't. And because Rose hasn't let hair loss plague her – "She never slowed down, it didn't bother her a bit," Tavenner says – when Tavenner learned she'd likely lose her hair during chemotherapy, she had mixed emotions.
"I thought it would be good that Rose wouldn’t feel alone, but I was scared to lose my hair, and I was worried about how Rose would feel when my hair started coming back [after my chemotherapy] and hers didn’t," says Tavenner, who'd offered to shave her own head two years ago, when Rose first lost her hair. (Rose declined, since she always liked braiding and brushing her mother's hair.)
But Tavenner lost her hair, regardless, and shaved her head entirely at the end of this past August. Although a photographer friend offered to take photos of Tavenner and Rose and capture their temporary resemblance, when the time came to schedule a photo shoot, Tavenner kept putting it off. "I’d gained weight from the chemotherapy and steroids, I didn’t feel good from all the procedures, and my body image was just really low at that point," says Tavenner, who initially wore a wig to hide her baldness.
"It made me feel horrible, like I was making her question her self confidence because of my insecurities," Tavenner says of this decision. "I told her she was so brave, and I asked her how she did it, and if she could help me be more brave and feel more comfortable without a wig on. She looked me and said, 'Momma, 'You just do it.' "
After this conversation took place in mid-September, Tavenner stopped wearing her wig around friends and family (although she continued to wear one in public). "I’m not as strong as Rose is. I am more aware of people looking at both of us, and I don't want to draw any more attention to her," she says.
By the end of September, Tavenner had arranged the mother-daughter photo shoot, which left her feeling extra close to Rose. Seeing the final photos ultimately made Tavenner feel much better about her appearance and her journey. "I was floored," she says. "I thought, OK, I don't look horrible. I think I look pretty and Rose looks gorgeous and together we look happy and strong."
Still, the photos' virality caught her by surprise. "It was just supposed to be something for us to mark this time," she says. (She only allowed Pizza, who had taken the photos for free to publicize them as a favor.) "I didn't realize how strongly they would come across. I'm still pretty taken a back that so many people seem to be touched by them. I feel like I’ve just done what I needed to do to take care of my family and take care of myself and be here for my family."
Lately, Tavenner has noticed fine, soft hair growing back where there's long been none. Her new hair is darker than the red curls she lost.
Although no one knows whether Rose's hair will grow back at all, let alone the same way as her mom's has, the 7-year-old likes to run her hands over her mom's fuzzy buzz cut – and that will have to do, at least for now.
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