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The Globe and Mail

Looking at breast cancer with an unflinching eye

The world is awash in pink of late.

We are, as you must know, midway into Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the annual international drive to focus public attention on the terrible disease and raise funds for research and prevention. And once again, everything has gone pink to support the campaign.

As in Octobers past, there are fundraising events and all manner of pink products, ranging from costume jewellery to cosmetics. Pink packaging of everyday items, from mushrooms to bottled water, abounds. Hulking NFL players are wearing pink cleats and Montreal Canadiens' goalie Carey Price is sporting a pink mask and pink-trimmed pads. Yes, there is a pink BlackBerry available.

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And while all this pink activity continues to raise proceeds for a very worthy cause, the disease continues to claim the lives of more than 5,000 Canadian women each year, and remains the most common cause of death in women under 50. And for those who survive, life is forever changed.

The reality of breast cancer is put on stark display in Baring It All on The Passionate Eye (CBC News Network, 10 p.m.). Produced and directed by Australian filmmaker Patricia Zagarella, the documentary unflinchingly profiles the subjects of The SCAR Project, a Pulitzer-nominated photography exhibition featuring portraits of breast cancer survivors aged 18 to 35.

As the film relates, The SCAR Project was initiated by fashion photographer David Jay, whose creative muse clicked after his girlfriend's twin sister, Paulina, was diagnosed with breast cancer four years back. Paulina immediately underwent a mastectomy, after which she agreed to a topless photo shoot displaying her new scars. The SCAR Project was born.

The word SCAR, Jay explains, is an acronym for Surviving Cancer Absolute Reality. The photos were made public and gradually more breast cancer survivors began making the pilgrimage to Jay's New York studio for their own shoots. The film interviews four of the project's photo subjects, each a remarkable woman in her own right.

The most touching participant is Marcy, who discovered a lump in her breast while pregnant with her second child. The film shows Marcy and her husband reliving the day they received her breast cancer diagnosis. It was a defining moment in their lives.

Next is Vanessa, a woman in her mid-twenties stricken with breast cancer six months after marrying her college sweetheart. She talks frankly about the impact of the diagnosis, and the fact that she no longer feels like a complete woman. Her husband Billy is grudgingly supportive of her decision to take part in the SCAR Project.

Also profiled is Michaela, who already survived ovarian cancer and had both breasts removed in a preventive measure. "You feel like 20 years of your life is taken away from you," she reflects sadly.

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And then there's Sylvia, a young Asian woman in her early twenties, who has had a radical mastectomy and extensive chemotherapy. She brings all five of her wigs to her photo shoot, which takes place in a New York hotel room. Sylvia asks Jay to make her photos "more conservative," in deference to her traditional family.

In each instance, the survivors of Baring It All are strong, inspiring women, and for some, the battle against breast cancer goes on.

The film fast-forwards one year as Jay catches up with the women, and we learn of their progress. Some have fared better than others, but the one constant evident among the four is their optimism and determination that tomorrow will be a better day.

For better or worse, this is what breast cancer looks like — the love, the pain and the whole damn thing. Baring it All should be required viewing for every single Canadian whose lives have been affected by cancer in some way, and really, that's all of us, isn't it?

Check local listings.

John Doyle will return.

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