It was the first time saw herself the same way everyone else did.
“I feel inspired by that person,” said Bernadette Zizzo, a cancer survivor, looking at a photograph of herself. “You don’t think you’re looking well, because you always have that tired feeling. Down, sleeping a lot, drained.”
In 2011, Zizzo was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer called LCIS. She was familiar with the cancer — her own mother had died from the same illness.
She underwent a double mastectomy upon doctor recommendation, and received breast implants in their place. Shortly after, Zizzo contracted E coli and had to remove her implants.
“She never even left the hospital, it went bad so quickly,” said Debbi Burke, Zizzo’s business partner at Art Frenzie, a gallery that specializes in framing. “They took out one right away and the other right after that.”
It was about a year before they proceeded with any more surgeries.
Last October, a different doctor came in and gave her new implants. She wound up with a major infection, causing her to be in and out of the hospital for months — including needing to undergo six surgeries in eight weeks to get rid of one of her infections.
“The infection got so bad that it turned into this major bacteria, they couldn’t figure out what it was, kept me there for three and a half months to cure it,” she said.
She’s been in treatment and recovery ever since with various antibiotics.
But recently, out in the public for the first time in months, Zizzo saw a photograph of herself up in Susan Buzzi’s “Resilient Women” photo documentary at the Broward Main Library, which ran through the end of October.
“Wow, I do look healthy there,” she said, pausing to admire the photo with a smile on her face. “Happy, healthy.”
Her photograph — which depicts her laughing and leaning against a sturdy tree — was in the gallery through the end of October to celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
And like the tree, she sees herself as “Stronger. Much stronger. Stuff to live for, right?”
Previously, Zizzo was bedridden, causing isolation with her friends and acquaintances.
“I haven’t seen anyone since the last show (over a year ago),” she said. “I was a little nervous coming in (to the photo exhibit) because I hadn’t seen anyone in a while, I didn’t know what to expect.”
But her relationship with Buzzi, the creator of the photo documentary, inspired her to participate in a photoshoot and attend the gallery. “She’s a doll,” Zizzo spoke of Buzzi, whom she has known for the last six years. “I love her.”
Three days after they met, the photographer accompanied Zizzo into her double mastectomy surgery, which lasted about eight hours. During the process of going in and out of recovery, Buzzi kept in touch with Zizzo and occasionally visited her.
“There were days when she could not even lift her hand out off the bed,” Buzzi told SFGN. “She was so weak she would fall asleep as we were talking.”
“It’s been a road for her, a struggle. But she still smiles, she still has that little drive — well, it’s more than a little drive. She’s got something inside her that just has to keep going. As soon as you meet her, she’s just effervescent.”
Although Zizzo is the co-owner of Art Frenzie, she has been out on disability while she recovers. Her business partner, Burke, has been there to support her along the way.
“It’s been crazy,” Burke said of the surgery and recovery processes. “I’m her best friend and partner and we are just like family, so I just try to help wherever I can.”
Despite all of the surgeries and treatments, Zizzo looks forward.
“I can’t ever say people are ever the same after cancer, after the treatments,” said Zizzo. “But I can say, it makes you a fighter. I believe the truth about all of this is, it’s what you’re made of. If you’re a fighter inside, if you have the will, that’s what it’s really about. Of all the people that I’ve met, you can see it in their eyes. It’s either doom and doom and doom or it’s that fight.”