In February 2016, 17-year-old Andrea Sierra Salazar was diagnosed with cancer. And when she lost her hair to chemotherapy, she lost all of her confidence and self-esteem with it. But then she had an epiphany. She took a beloved hobby and turned it into a powerful statement about the beauty of the human spirit.
When Salazar awoke one morning with a pain in her neck, she thought it was due to an uncomfortable night’s sleep. She felt a lump, however, and when she paid a visit to her doctor, a far more serious problem was revealed.
Doctors discovered a tumor on Salazar’s collar bone, with a further lump being found in her chest. When they told her she had stage-2 nodular sclerosis Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the Texas high-school student realized that her life was never going to be the same again.
As Salazar later explained to BuzzFeed News, “There were no side effects. I wouldn’t have known [I had cancer] until one day I felt like I slept wrong, and my neck hurt. I patted my neck and I felt a really big ball.”
Nodular sclerosis Hodgkin’s lymphoma is the most common of four types of Hodgkin’s disease. While it can affect people of any age, it’s most likely to occur in teenagers and young adults. Usually first appearing in the neck or chest, it accounts for 60 to 80 percent of all Hodgkin’s disease cases.
The outlook for those with nodular sclerosis Hodgkin’s lymphoma, however, is fairly good with early detection and treatment. Indeed, it is a less aggressive form of Hodgkin’s, and when caught early survival rates can be higher than 90 percent.
The teenager started chemotherapy treatment and consequently lost all of her hair. She later explained, “Before chemotherapy I had always been a confident person. So when my hair started to fall out I would look in the mirror and I wouldn’t feel that confident about myself.”
Confidence, however, was key to Salazar’s long-time hobby, which was a modeling. Subsequently, to help regain some of the confidence she had lost along with her hair, her mom suggested that she take some downtime from school to have a bit of fun in front of the camera.
So, Salazar took the opportunity to experiment with wigs in photo shoots. But she still felt insecure about being bald. And then her mom began to contact various modeling agencies and photographers. Generally, the response was positive, with many willing for the 17-year-old to model for them.
One photographer’s work stood out, however. Gerardo Garmendia’s portraits were posted on social media and immediately seemed to resonate with the public – earning hundreds of thousands of likes and retweets. Alongside the photos, Salazar wrote, “Cancer doesn’t stop me from being a princess.”
Garmendia’s day job is in the marketing department at a nearby hospital. He said that the concept of the shoot – “a princess without a wig” – was devised by Salazar herself.
In the beginning, however, she was nervous about showing her bald head and laying open her vulnerability for the world to see. She later explained to Buzzfeed News, “[At first] I didn’t feel confident enough to do a version without a wig.” But then she had something of an epiphany.
“I realized that I had no reason to be ashamed of the way I looked,” Salazar continued. “I should be proud.” She went on, “It’s not about my outside beauty, it’s about the inside. That’s what really inspired the photo shoot without the wig.”
However, Salazar had never anticipated that the pictures would resonate so strongly with the world. Indeed, her original intention was a little more straightforward and closer to home – she simply wanted to inspire and encourage other young, female cancer patients at her hospital to celebrate their inner beauty.
She explained, “I see all these little girls, and you can see it in their faces that they lose all confidence in themselves.” So, knowing what they were going through, she found the strength within herself to lose her wig and embrace baldness.
“I want [people] to know that your hair or your physical attributes doesn’t define who you are,” Salazar continued. “What really matters is your inner beauty, the way you treat others. And if you’re a kind person, that shows through.” And Salazar’s beauty certainly shines in her shoot with Garmendia.
With a bald head and a turquoise gown in the photographs, Salazar appears to emanate comfort and acceptance about her situation, redefining what it means to be beautiful. Consequently, the shoot will surely help inspire many people to accept their differences and embrace their unique qualities.
Photographer Garmendia, meanwhile, was full of praise for Salazar. “She was open and not ashamed or embarrassed to share that part of herself,” he said. “The way that she was coping with cancer was just very inspirational to me. I was happy to capture this stage of life for her.”
Speaking about physical beauty, Salazar added, “It doesn’t matter whether you have hair or not, I don’t think that represents you as a person… If you don’t have long legs, or blue eyes, or something that people think is perfect… that’s not beauty.”
Salazar, who underwent her last chemo session in June 2016, continues to inspire people fighting cancer via her Twitter and Facebook pages. In her own words, “Cancer shouldn’t stop you from doing what you love. I want [people] to know that they’re beautiful on the inside, and I want to be an inspiration to them.”