Think back to being 21 years old. The freedom, the excitement, how invincible you feel. Now imagine being 21 and diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Then, a few years later, you test positive as a carrier of the BRCA-1 gene which puts you at an increased risk of developing certain cancers. This sounds like a nightmare, but for Samantha Paige it was a reality.
While dealing with both of these diagnoses, battling cancer and enduring a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, she lived life on autopilot, never really allowing herself to fully confront the extreme depression and anxiety she was dealing with for years.
Finally, after a breakdown, a breakthrough came in the form of another diagnosis: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For Paige, it was a wakeup call.
"I eventually was able to be current with my emotions," she said. "I had stuffed the sadness, disappointment and hurt down for years."
From there, Paige was able to start making some extremely hard but essential decisions: she ended her marriage, shuttered her jewelry company, and decided to remove her silicone breast implants in an explant surgery—which she began to refer to as her "last cuts."
This physical and emotional transformation evolved into The Last Cut Project—a photographic and community-based documentation of her journey.
She started out writing about her experiences, but the response she received was overwhelming, and soon the project took off. Partnering with photographer Lisa Field, Paige decided to document in images her explant surgery. The result is a stunning gallery titled EXPLANT.
"Lisa — an incredibly talented photographer but also one of my best friends — and I had spoken for years about creative collaboration, so when I had the idea to let someone in and capture this chapter of my life so intimately, I knew this was our moment to create together," she told Levo.
"Soon after the initial months of the project, I was beginning to physically heal and understand the deep emotional healing that transpires through sharing our stories."
This month, photos from EXPLANT are on view at Site 57 Gallery in New York City, alongside the work of another friend and fellow cancer survivor Yuri Angela Chung, who is displaying her Notes to a Friend multimedia installation. Their goal: to encourage more people to share their stories.
All of these initiatives are about building community, said Paige.
"There is a palpable effect that occurs with this level of sharing and connection," she explained. "We hope to inspire others, especially those we cannot meet with in person, to share and connect through our podcast, our @lastcutproject Instagram community, and our website.
"These last cut moments are incredibly internal and personally driven," she added, "but we need community and support in these tremendous moments of bravery and change."
Paige credits the support she received both within her network of friends and the vast Internet community, with fostering her own healing process. And for her, healing is as much about the mind as it is about the body.
"When I got present with my emotions and stopped feeling as if I was living according to how I thought I should be, I was set free from the migraines, panic attacks and anxiety," she said. "If I ever feel the whisper of those come back in my body, I know I need to take an inventory to make sure I am living according to my own truth and what I believe in most."
Through her own path to self-acceptance, Paige has learned the importance of spreading that message—though social media, artistic collaborations, and community.
She now hosts the Last Cut Conversations podcast and fosters an online and offline community for women on similar journeys.
"Giving voice to the many last cuts I made leading up to the explant, and of course, that huge cut has been incredibly liberating," she added. "Now my creativity and voice have space to come through in the art and in every connection I make."
All Photos Credited to Lisa Field
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