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Inspirational Belfast exhibition celebrates resilience of people living with cancer

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Gwyneth Doherty

Gwyneth Doherty

Linda McIlwrath (right) with her daughter Emma

Linda McIlwrath (right) with her daughter Emma

Joan McCartney

Joan McCartney

Sandra McCarry

Sandra McCarry

Peter Branker

Peter Branker

14-year-old Georgia Cocking is the youngest person to be involved in the project

14-year-old Georgia Cocking is the youngest person to be involved in the project

Maura Gilmore carries the BRCA2 gene

Maura Gilmore carries the BRCA2 gene

Sharon Flood

Sharon Flood

Elizabeth Cameron

Elizabeth Cameron

Wendy Corkin

Wendy Corkin

Jo-Ann Grimley

Jo-Ann Grimley

Nina Cristinacce

Nina Cristinacce

Gwyneth Doherty

The beauty and resilience of Northern Ireland men, women and children who have battled cancer are being celebrated in an inspiring photography exhibition in Belfast.

Here I Am aims to show the truth about cancer and how it affects the human form with a series of photographic exhibitions of people living with the disease as well as their first-hand stories.

Nina Cristinacce, a cancer survivor herself, came up with the concept after seeing the image of an Australian woman on Facebook who had undergone a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy.

"I thought she was incredibly beautiful and courageous and put up a post saying that I wished I had the courage to do this," she said.

She added they had no budget for the project, but had been lucky to have photographers Michael Barbour, Mark McGrogan, James Hislop, Brian Sherry, Carrie Davenport, Shelley Rodgers and Karolina Harper come on board for free.

One person who bravely bared all was 41-year-old Maura Gilmore, from Kircubbin, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2013. "My sons were only one and two at the time, so I had to survive - I had a life to live," she said.

Maura carries the BRCA2 gene and has a higher risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. In February 2013, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction using implants.

She also went on to have her ovaries removed and a nipple which had cancerous cells. She then started taking Tamoxifen, which she will take for 10 years to reduce the risk of the cancer returning.

Her sons moved in with other family while she recovered and started the gruelling journey of chemotherapy. Describing her lowest points, Maura said her "mind, body and spirit fought the endless side-effects as the treatment attacked every cell in my body".

She described feeling depressed and hopeless as not only was she incredibly ill, she wasn't able to look after her children and struggled seeing herself with a bald head and a new body that was healing from surgery.

However, slowly, Maura began to feel better and she began to get her life back.

It was thinking back to her diagnosis that pushed her to pose for the project.

"At that stage, you are in complete shock thinking, 'What is going on?'" she explained. "You are handed this wee booklet showing pictures of women's breasts that had breast cancer with reconstruction or without. It was like they weren't real, you don't see a person there - it's not real.

"If it had happened within the first year of me having surgery, I probably wouldn't have bared all, but I had come through so much I thought, 'If it wasn't for this I wouldn't be here'. So I went, 'You know what, do it'."

Maura said that she was "in awe of everyone in the pictures".

"A lot of the time I don't even think about what happened and I don't really look myself, because you don't really and it was actually when I was reading all the other people's stories and then I came to mine," she added.

"I was looking at it in the third person and I just got this feeling in my stomach and thought, 'That's you, you did do that'. It has made me quite emotional.

"Things like this are therapeutic. It is important for people not to suppress their feelings and it's just an outlet for people to discuss it."

The Here I Am exhibition is on at the ArtCetera Gallery in Rosemary Street, Belfast, until this Sunday. Organisers hope to bring the collection to a new venue afterwards

Belfast Telegraph