Pam King is “a tough cookie” – as her daughter Tracy puts it. She has survived not one, not two, but four bouts with skin cancer, colon cancer, and two types of breast cancer.
But, last year, as the 64-year-old Savin Hill mom of three braced for her fifth fight – against non-Hodgkins lymphoma – she grew worried. Her first-ever chemotherapy session was looming and she dreaded the thought of losing her hair. She worried, too, that she might not make it to her next birthday.
So she took pre-emptive measures. Rather than watch her hair fall out in clumps, she cut it short herself. And a funny thing happened: The close-cropped cut actually suited her.
“She looked fabulous – just like Jamie Lee Curtis,” said her daughter Tracy with a laugh. She is a 40-year-old professional photographer who occasionally did volunteer work for charities that help with adults and kids battling illnesses.
Tracy offered to take some images of her mom rocking her new hair style as a way to boost everyone’s spirits and help Pam gird for the battle ahead. Her mother Pam had some fun with the photo shoot – adding a bandana and striking a pose in the fashion of Rosie the Riveter, the iconic World War II heroine. They took the photos at Savin Hill Park and added balloons as symbols of the cancers that have loomed and hovered over Pam’s life.
“Cancer can be attached to us, but it’s not a part of us,” said Tracy. “It’s a good symbol, because it’s not permanent. It can eventually be let go.” Later, they picked a single word to summarize Pam’s approach to beating her latest cancer: Strength.
The photos that Tracy created with her mom now serve as the template for a budding campaign that both mom and daughter think has the potential to go international. She and a growing team of volunteers have begun capturing the images and stories of other cancer survivors, most of which are posted on a Facebook page that she maintains. King calls it “The Next Birthday Project” – a name coined by Pam.
“My mom said, ‘I think you’re onto something here,’ ” recalls Tracy. “She’s actually the one who named it ‘The Next Birthday Project’ because everybody who deals with cancer just wants to get to another birthday.”
Pam’s lymphoma has since gone into remission. She says she is feeling great and is back to work full-time at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a side job, she helps Tracy as an assistant on many of her shoots for the “Next Birthday Project.” Pam jokes that Tracy pays her in hot dogs.
“We’ve met some wonderful people doing this project and it’s going crazy all of a sudden. I’m very happy with it,” says Pam. “Part of having cancer is trying to find the positive as much as possible. Tracy’s idea of the balloon as a celebration – it helps. It’s definitely a positive way to look at what they’re dealing with.”
Tracy has created series of photos with both survivors and with families whose loved ones have lost their battles. Each story, she says, is meant to inspire other individuals, and their families, who are coping with a tough diagnosis.
King has created an advisory board, which has on its roster several longtime Dorchester friends like Jill McDonough. Together, they are planning a float for this year’s Dorchester Day Parade to introduce the “Next Birthday Project” as a new non-profit to a hometown audience.
"The parade itself will be a big deal. I know how amazing our neighborhood gets when it comes to showing support for a local project but also something that affects almost everyone,” said Tracy. “We are in need of donations to continue this project.”
Tracy has fielded inquiries from as far away as Europe from cancer survivors — and those currently battling disease— who want to document their stories. “I don’t push people to tell their story,” she said. “They’re out there and they’re waiting until their ready.”
To see more of the “Next Birthday Project,” visit their website, nextbirthdayproject.org