She never signed up for this...
Barbie Ritzco signed up to be a Marine, to be on the front lines fighting America's battles.
She did not sign up to be on the front lines fighting breast cancer.
Soon after her deployment to Afghanistan in 2011, as she stood in the shower she could feel a lump in her breast growing bigger every day. Her code of honor and loyalty ran so deep, she agonized that having cancer could require her to prioritize her own health over her responsibility to her fellow Marines. When that happened, she later said, leaving her unit was harder to accept than the diagnosis itself.
Back in the U.S. for treatment, she applied her leadership skills to a different battle, breathing her indomitable spirit into other warriors who needed some of it. As one of three sisters who all have the BRCA2 mutation, she actively helped educate and encourage others. Tapping into both her emotional and her physical strength, she ran marathons, including the Marine Corps Marathon which she ran during radiation, on the heels of chemo and a double mastectomy. And she co-founded Flat and Fabulous, a worldwide group to empower women living without reconstruction; which is where I first learned about her.
No wonder Barbie was known in the breast cancer community as The Warrior Queen.
Feisty and fierce, brave and badass, battle trained and battle scarred, she chose to pose for The Scar Project created by photographer David Jay, becoming one of its most supportive and memorable models, and eloquently explaining why participating was important to her.
The dog tags and camouflage are real. I am still active duty. I have been in for over 17 years and two combat deployments. In February 2011, I was diagnosed with Stage IIIB Breast Cancer, four months after being deployed to Afghanistan.
My young life has been rudely interrupted -- and yet, I continue to forge on and accomplish things that others only talk and dream about. Perseverance, endurance, determination... these are the things that have been taught to me and instilled in me. I live in a world where giving up or giving in is not an option.
David Jay has given me the gift of allowing myself to be seen by others as I am now after being chewed up and spit out by cancer.
On September 26, 2014, cancer swallowed up Barbie Ritzco at age 39, cutting short a remarkable life.
Her loss has hit hard. It's hard to accept that even for the toughest and worthiest warriors, battle metaphors don't quite fit the truths of cancer.
Barbie taught other truths of cancer along the way. She even made a short personal video about her cancer journey (Click here to see it, and keep tissues handy). For the first shot, she chose The Scar Project tagline: "Breast Cancer is Not a Pink Ribbon."
That truth is well known by Barbie's sisters in the sorority no one wants to join. Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon. Nor is it pink. For Barbie maybe it was more red, white and blue, the color of the flag that will cover her coffin and be given to her son after she is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
If there is any comfort to be found, it's maybe that in her final days, Barbie was aware that her topless selfie went viral as she had wanted; that she and her family knew that she touched many many people, that she made a difference, that her legacy of inspiration will live on in hearts and minds. And it will.
As I write this at the start of Breast Cancer Awareness month, I know that I will see Barbie in every pink ribbon.
Photos by David Jay, The Scar Project
Barbie's story, told in her own words, is featured in the book The Pink Moon Lovelies, Empowering Stories of Survival.
A writer, speaker, and cancer survivor, Darryle Pollack titled her blog, TED talk, and upcoming book "I never signed up for this...." in honor of all the times she's said those words.