Catherine “Caleigh” Steele knows what it takes to support a loved one undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
“This past summer marks six years since my own mother was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer,” the 18-year-old from New Canaan, Connecticut, tells PEOPLE. “The day that my mom left to undergo a double mastectomy, we took some pictures as a family in our front yard. Those photos constantly reminded us of the circle of support she had when going through treatment.”
After her mother underwent successful surgery, Steele felt empowered to help other families who have been affected by the disease.
“I wanted to bring something special to them to try to make a really terrible situation a little bit better,” she says.
That’s when she remembered the snapshots her family took on the front lawn and how they served as a lasting reminder of the love they felt that day.
With help from her little sister, Lynden, and close family friend and photographer Jeffrey Shaw, Steele started the Pink Portrait Project to give women with breast cancer the opportunity to celebrate their own support networks.
The project matches breast cancer survivors and those undergoing treatment with photographers who provide free photo shoots for the survivors and their “breast cancer families” – anyone who has provided them with support throughout their journey.
Melissa Lawrence, a three-year breast cancer survivor, opted for a photo shoot with her husband and two sons to celebrate her new chapter.
“I realized that I really don’t have very many family portraits and, in fact, the only one that I had was taken about six months prior to my diagnosis,” Lawrence, 40, tells PEOPLE. “So to be able to get a picture of my family after the storm was really meaningful – it represented a new start.”
Shaw says it was Steele’s dedication to the cause that moved him to get involved with the project. However, a shocking phone call in April gave him a new appreciation for the mission of supporting women with breast cancer.
“I got a call from my mother in the middle of one of these shoots and sent it to voicemail,” Shaw says. “After I was done, I listened to the message and learned that my mom was calling to tell me that she had gone to the doctor and was just diagnosed with breast cancer.”
“It was profound,” he adds. “Here I am photographing these families and breast cancer had never touched my family before on a personal level. The timing was surreal, but it deepened the meaning.”
Because her cancer was caught early, Shaw’s mother underwent a successful surgery and he’s happy to report she’s “doing wonderfully.”
If detected early, breast cancer has a 98 percent survival rate – for this reason, many of the project’s shoots are organized for survivors looking to rejoice.
“For the most part, Pink Portrait Project is about celebrating,” Shaw says. “Whatever phase they’re at, I find breast cancer survivors to be so powerful. They’ve been changed by the experience and they live life differently.”
Still, everyone involved is acutely aware that not all individuals diagnosed with breast cancer will see a positive outcome.
“We are giving families these lasting memories because not everyone can be treated,” Steele says. “I think that’s the hardest part so far for me – learning to deal with and cope with that.”
“There’s this quiet side that doesn’t get spoken about,” Shaw adds. “In some cases, people just want to know that they’re leaving something behind for their family.”
“Next year, we’re hoping to make a national event in October,” Steele says, “That way women everywhere can be reminded that there are people who support and love them, and that it is possible to get through this experience.”
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