Life / Living

Facing mortality and putting the pieces back together with Johanna Bjork

Life / Living

"Now, we all know that we will one day die. But it feels distant and abstract. Realizing that day might come very soon changes a lot. Having to face your mortality is hard. But actually also incredibly liberating." - Johanna Björk

From The Noodler

"You have cancer." is one of the last things any of us want to hear. Cancer. Most of us are likely terrified by the idea that this could happen to any one of us - or to a family member or friend - at any time. According to the White House's Proclamation on National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, 2023, almost 300,000 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed this year alone. And 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer (the most common cancer diagnosis in women after skin cancer) in their lifetime.

With reports on the rising rates of cancer for people under the age of 40 (in particular breast cancer), coinciding with many of us reaching ages where discovery of the disease is more common - we've been thinking a lot about the duplexity of a cancer diagnosis, the treatment journey, and the resulting effects on one's mind, body and soul. The thing about cancer is that it not only threatens internal organs and tissues but also (due to the measures taken to fight it); breast cancer, in particular, often alters the external/physical attributes integral to a woman's identity, self-esteem, and self-worth.

This week's contributor, Johanna Björk - a designer and visual artist based in Ojai, California, created a visual essay unpacking her experience of not just living through a diagnosis but finding life on the other side of treatment and reconstructive surgeries. In her work, Johanna uses self-portraits to explore all of the ways having cancer changed her from the inside out.

Visual Essay

I died about 8 years ago. Not my physical body, but the person I had been up until that point did. Left us after a year-long battle with cancer. There was no funeral because there was no body. It was actually very alive and well, under the circumstances at least. In place of old-me came new-me. She was the same, but different. She looked the same (minus the lack of hair on her head), her voice was the same, as was her name. But this Johanna knew something the old one didn’t. That it was her duty to be the best person she could possibly be, and live life to the absolute fullest. Because she knew she was one of the lucky ones who had made it. She knew she needed to live for herself, but also for those who didn’t get to. Survivorship is liberating, but also comes with responsibility.

I was born and raised in Sweden. It’s one of the happiest, healthiest, wealthiest countries in the world. Lucky me. “You’ve got those good Nordic genes,” people often tell me. And, yeah, I do. I’m tall and, although not very traditionally “Swedish-looking,” have some attributes that may be considered attractive. I also inherited a mutation on a tumor suppressor gene called BRCA1 from my mother. This significantly increases the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. The normal risk for female breast cancer development in the general population is 12.5%. Mine is up to 80% higher than that. Unlucky Me.

It was 2015. I was basking in the glow of brand-new motherhood with a 9-month-old baby girl. Everything was going incredibly well. She was great. Life was great. I was even sleeping great. That summer I had a moment, in bed, while holding her as she was sleeping next to me. I was overcome with this intense feeling that if I died right then and there my life would be complete. I was happy and content and all the things. Not even two months later, I got my diagnosis — aggressive, triple-negative breast cancer. And I realized that actually I really didn’t want to die right then and there. Fuck that. I was so not done with this life.

I did my treatment in my hometown in Sweden. Mostly because my mom was going through her treatment there, having recently been diagnosed for the second time (7 years after the first). We had cancer together. Lucky us. Mother-daughter bald-head matchies. I think most would agree that your daughter would be the last person in the world you’d want as your cancer buddy. But there we were. Unlucky us.

The hospital where I did my mastectomy and chemotherapy is the same one where I was born. Dark thoughts of coming full circle to my place of birth just to die were unavoidable. Now, we all know that we will one day die. But it feels distant and abstract. Realizing that day might come very soon changes you a lot. Having to face your mortality is hard. But actually also incredibly liberating. At least it was for me. It made me realize that anything after this moment is a gift. Life is a gift. And I’m going to live it to the damn fullest. I started saying no to things I didn’t want to do (which I had never done before). But I also started saying yes to all that I did want to do, even if those things seemed crazy or the timing was bad or whatever. It made a world of difference, and I do feel like I am better in every way now. I could’ve definitely done without all the surgeries and chemo treatments. Those were not my days of wine and roses. But they gave way to them. And I recognize, honor, and give thanks for that. From all the darkness of that very difficult experience came something bright and beautiful and radiant. A brand new me, with a new lease on life and very few fucks left to give.

I knew at some point I had to make art that talked about my experience as a young cancer survivor, but I also knew I wanted to do so using a lens of beauty and positivity. Because I strongly believe those two concepts are the most powerful conduits of transformation. I often use my own body as the subject matter, in a way that is both exhibitionistic and vulnerable.

There’s beauty and light to be found in everything. Instead of submitting to darkness, I choose to see things through a positive lens — often incorporating shiny, bright, iridescent aspects into my work. Like a disco ball, but one where the shiny, dazzling exterior serves as a protective layer for something darker and more profound — akin to the hot, dense ball of iron that forms the earth’s core.

All my work plays with the vernacular of pinup/centerfold photography, taking motifs that would traditionally be considered sexual but become subversive because of the scars on my body. There’s a sense of glamour and beauty to it, but that starts falling apart when you see the whole picture. I want to be seen, yet hide behind glitter and shine. I aim to make myself an example of what it is to be both of many things. I am not this or that, I am this and that. The Madonna and the Whore. The Survivor and the Thriver. The Warrior and the Worrier. The Goddess and the Mortal. One does not exclude the other, they blend together into the beautiful mess that is my human form, which is fleeting and impermanent.

I’m certain I will go through many more cycles of death and rebirth throughout my life, as many of us do. Change is often our only constant. And death is the inevitable end-result. What truly matters to me, though, is what I do with the life and the living that I get to do before I get there.

Artist Notes

Pieces of Me I, II & III

Mixed media collage
Pieces of Me is a series of photographic collages where I used a surgical scalpel to cut out pieces of myself, revealing a bright iridescent light shining through the darkness. I then repositioned those pieces on my body, representing the disconnect and dysmorphia I experienced after having my body altered by surgeries and disease — literally and metaphorically being cut up and reassembled into some new version of myself that feels familiar yet not.

Then/Now I, II & III

Photographic collage
Then/Now is a series of collages where I juxtapose images I took in 2015, right after I lost my hair to chemo, with photos taken in 2021 for a collaboration with sex-positive female-run porn site Erika Lust, to help promote the first explicit film in history intended to raise awareness about sex and breast cancer. It’s celebrating those two different versions of myself and creating a dialogue between then-me and now-me — about perseverance, beauty, healing, and (hair) growth.


Photographic collage, glitter
In XXX I use the letter X as a magnification device, to bring the altered, scarred parts of me into focus. And I douse them in glitter to really honor the divine magical parts of the transformation my body has been through.

Johanna Björk

Designer & Visual Artist


Johanna Björk is a designer and visual artist born and raised in Sweden, and currently based in Ojai, California. She runs an award-winning boutique design studio that works with brands and nonprofits who make the world a better place through products and services rooted in innovation, sustainability and wellness.