Charlie Johnson, a registered nurse from Gillham, Arkansas, was the first to find the lump in her breast. Doctors assured her last April when she went in for a mammogram and check-up that it was likely benign, but after it became painful, she insisted that it be taken out.
“Two weeks after removal I went into my follow-up appointment with my surgeon. That was when he told me about my lump results, telling me I was now a 34-year-old with breast cancer,” Johnson tells PEOPLE.
As devastating and shocking as her diagnosis was, Johnson, embracing the spirited admonition to “fight like a girl,” decided to take control of her treatment — and her outlook. She and husband Kelsey, 33, worked with Arkansas lifestyle photographer Mandy Parks, 35, to create a unique and heartfelt photoshoot that illustrates their cancer journey together.
The images are set in a country field, where Johnson wore a long pink dress accessorized with a gold cancer ribbon necklace. An emotional showcase of the couple’s determination and great love, the photos show Kelsey shaving Johnson’s carefully styled blonde curls from his wife’s head.
On the family heirloom bureau, where Charlie sits and stares into the mirror during this grim but loving haircut, is a symbolic pair of pink boxing gloves. The last of the series includes a pose with her wearing the glove and raising her hands behind her head victoriously, her bald head rising with elegance.
“We started talking about doing this photoshoot and I said, ‘Why don’t you be the one who takes your hair, not cancer?” says Parks, who has run her professional photography business for about four years.
Johnson tells PEOPLE they had the same vision for the message from the very start.
“If one woman is struggling with the worries, anxiety, fear of losing her hair and sees this post and can get some hope or empowerment to think ‘I can do this,’ then that is exactly what we want,” Johnson says. “I was excited and scared, all at the same time — for myself and my husband and kids.”
The timing was crucial, adds Parks, but the outpouring was a huge surprise.
“After Charlie’s first chemo treatment, her hair came out faster than anticipated, so we did this between her first and second treatments, after she felt better,” says Parks. “We totally didn’t think, when we did this, that it would be so wild.”
“We’ve had hundreds of people reaching out with messages of support,” Parks adds. “Our hope is that there is someone out there who is dealing with the same condition and the same raw emotions who will see something positive about this experience.”
A friend has started a GoFundMe campaign for Charlie and her family, which includes their three children, ages 15, 13 and 10.
Parks, who knew Charlie and Kelsey from church, typically shoots engagement, wedding, boudoir and graduation spreads. She admits that this particular assignment was difficult to get through.
“It was very emotional. Highly emotional. I had to take a lot of breaks and walk away,” she tells PEOPLE. “I was shooting her through a mirror most of the time. I kept giving her reassuring words. They were talking to one another the whole time, telling one another they love each other. It was pretty awesome.”
As the photos were shared Tuesday via Facebook, all involved knew they wanted it to be more than simply a memory — but a testimony to loving one another when times are tough.
“I am truly blessed with such a loving and caring family on both my side and my husbands’ side, and friends that are pretty much family such as Mandy,” Johnson tells PEOPLE.
Her children have been patient and understanding, too. “They are all handling everything so well for being kids. So helpful with everything,” says Johnson, who continues to work her night shift in the emergency department, but plans on taking off for a week after her chemotherapy treatments, the second of which is scheduled for Friday.
While Johnson has shared her personal life through deeply intimate images, the reaction has been inspiring so far.
“We were doing this for other people going through this but it came back more of a support for her tenfold,” Parks adds as the images continue to be shared online.
“It was so amazing — people are saying this reminds me of my mom, my sister, relatives who had gone through it,” Parks says. “There is a lot of negative stuff out there, you know, and when you can see so much positivity — kind words and good words coming from people you don’t know… so much good has come out of this.”
Noted Parks in a Facebook post honoring Charlie’s bravery and that of all women facing struggles: “Strong women aren’t simply born. They are made by the storms they walk through. From the pain, mistakes, and heartache we achieve pride and strength. I don’t know who needs to see this today. Or yesterday. Or someone you know might get this phone call tomorrow. Show them what strength looks like. Let them know they are not alone. Stand by them as they kick this like the warrior they are!”
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