Photographer Captures Life

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Mary Jane Bohlen published Bosom Buddies to honor women who have had breast cancer. (Photo by Robert M. Bohlen.)

By Laura Moyer

At first, artist Mary Jane Condon Bohlen ’94 had to find fellow breast cancer survivors who’d let her photograph them – chest scars exposed – for her book about life after diagnosis.

But as word of the project circulated, women started asking to be included. They were proud of their resilient bodies and eager to share stories about how surviving breast cancer changed them inside and out.

The result is Bosom Buddies, a book of powerful photographs, essays, and poems celebrating determination and grace.

Bohlen is donating half the proceeds of the recently self-published book to the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. She’s been involved with the center since 2008, when she and husband Bob moved back to her native New England after almost 30 years in the Fredericksburg area.

The move north happened soon after Bohlen’s second breast cancer diagnosis.  She wanted to be closer to family, and the diagnosis, 16 years after her first bout with cancer, sealed the decision.

Still, Bohlen found it bittersweet to leave Virginia, where she’d earned a later-in-life degree from Mary Washington, had a satisfying career as an art teacher, and become a respected local artist.

The oldest of eight children, she figured her formal education was over once she completed high school in 1961. “I thought you had to be really brilliant to go to college, or have a lot of money,” Bohlen recalled. Instead, she put her photo skills and artist’s eye to work as a medical photographer.

It wasn’t until many years later, when she lived in the Fredericksburg area, that she reconsidered. The sisters at Montfort Academy, a Catholic school where Bohlen taught art part time, encouraged her to get a degree and teach full time.

Cost was still a worry. But for Mother’s Day 1990, daughter Nie and sons Bobby and Patrick, then ages 16, 14, and 5, made her a deal. They’d put their savings toward two college classes, but Bohlen had to promise not to watch TV or go on a date with Daddy until her homework was done. And she had to get A’s.

At Mary Washington, Bohlen recalls, a financial aid specialist helped her piece together scholarships and grants to cover costs, and professors helped her balance scholarship, work, and family. “I don’t think you would find that in a large college or university,” she said.

Her schedule was grueling, especially after her first breast cancer diagnosis. She remembers teaching elementary art on Thursday mornings, taking chemotherapy in the afternoon, attending a night class at Mary Washington, teaching again on Fridays, and feeling sick to death on Saturdays.

But her college classes absorbed her, and with her family pulling for her, Bohlen stayed on the dean’s list and finished in four years.

As a teacher and artist, Bohlen earned a Fulbright Memorial Teacher Fund scholarship to study in Japan, was twice honored as Northern Virginia’s outstanding elementary art teacher, and taught and exhibited in Virginia and Rhode Island.

Creating Bosom Buddies melded a lifetime’s worth of artistic and personal development. And it’s tangible proof of Bohlen’s refusal to be daunted by cancer or anything else. “My philosophy has always been, when your time comes, it comes,” she said. Meanwhile, though, “I’m going to live my life as fully as I can.”

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