Unbreakable Spirit: A photo essay by Samantha Madar


Ginnie Levin 34, of Saint Louis, gets prepared for surgery at McLaren Central Michigan in Mount Pleasant Mich., on Tuesday Oct. 28, 2014. Ginnie’s surgery was to place a new port below her left collarbone, due to issues with the original one.

It is a fear unlike no other. In the spring of 2013 I found a lump in my left  breast.

In the following three months, doctors told me they did not know if it was cancer, but told me I should be prepared for the worst. I was living a nightmare. 

After undergoing the surgery in March 2013, the results came back as a fibroadenoma, a benign tumor. Despite the clean bill of health, I was hurting and full of anger because I had to face this situation. These emotions were too great for me to break away from on my own.

As a photojournalist, I am passionate about sharing stories that can change the lives of others. I became determined to find someone who could show others, and myself, how to beat the negativity that comes with cancer. 

Virgina “Ginnie” Levin’s battle with cancer is one to memorialize. Ginnie, at the age of 29, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer Stage III, in 2010. Despite a double mastectomy and lymph node dissection, she was deemed terminal January 2013, after the cancer had spread to her liver, stomach and bones. 

Ginnie shows off her new tattoo to her family in her bedroom in St. Louis on Nov 1, 2014, which was done to hide her scars from the double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

Ginnie lived life on her own terms. Before and after the diagnosis, she experienced more than most people could ever imagine. She joined the Marines Corps, went sky diving in Chicago, celebrated Mardi Gras in New Orleans and went white water kayaking in Washington D.C. 

Ginnie was not the only one in her family to have faced cancer, and had more reasons to be angry about her situation than anyone. In the summer of 2012 her grandmother and mother both lost battles to cancer. In April 2014, her father was diagnosed with cancer as well, but found it early enough to receive treatment.

Even with so many cancer battles within the Levin family, one thing always remained clear: Family was always the most important thing.

Ginnie is kissed by one of her brothers, Dave Levin, at her home in St. Louis on Nov 1, 2014.

Since Ginnie never had kids of her own, besides her dog Drake, she treated her seven nieces and nephews as her own. As her last wish, she had hoped to take a trip to Disney to make long lasting memories for her family to remember her by. 

Ginnie said, “I’ve learned that too many of us put things off that we want to do and then may never get to do them. I had so many things I wanted to do, but I just kept saying 'some day.' For me that 'some day' almost never happened. So if there is something you want to do, you should do it. Make your life fun and exciting. Take those trips you’ve always wanted to take. Go skydiving. Whatever it is, do it because you never know. I’ve been blessed that I was able to realize that and do those things that I wanted to do.” 

When I met Ginnie, I was so honored to be able to share her story, to help others facing cancer. Little did I know she would be saving me as well. Ginnie lived a life full of love and adventure, despite the label “terminal” always following in her shadow. 

Ginnie has her new port, for chemo therapy, used for the first time at Norval K. Morey Cancer Center on Oct 30, 2014. 

She taught me that there is no point in being angry, because you never know what is going to happen tomorrow. I never expected to have a cancer scare, but I did. Ginnie taught me many lessons that I will hold on for the rest of my life, I learned to be happy because life is way to short to live it any other way. 

Ginnie died in February 2015. Although she lived two years with the knowledge that each day could be her last, Ginnie never gave up on her plans for the future.

She had a plan for each one of those days and no matter her health, Ginnie Levin lived exactly how she wanted. 

Ginnie plays with her nephew and nieces in the leaves at her home in St. Louis on Nov. 1, 2014. Since was never able to have children of her own she considers her nieces and nephews like her own.