How to Love Life Fiercely and Make It Count
As I interviewed my subject, Melissa Beck-Boratyn, I knew she was dying. I also knew that her loved ones might turn to my piece after she was gone. Thus, I knew I had to get it "right."
When I opened the email last night, I was reminded that, when we write, we have an incredible opportunity to preserve life.
I was already in bed when the email showed up on my phone from the mother of a woman I’d written about in 2019. The mom had just read my profile piece about her daughter, then reached out to me with some lovely words of her own. Her daughter’s name is Melissa Beck-Boratyn.
After living with Stage IV breast cancer, Melissa, a writer and film director, died on June 21, 2020. I’d interviewed Melissa six months before her death, then published my piece (below) 3 months after she was gone.
I always felt guilty that I hadn’t finished and published the story before Melissa died.
Two weeks after I received Melissa’s emailed responses to my interview questions, I was hospitalized and required major surgery. Suddenly, Melissa’s responses — and all my best-laid plans and good intentions — took a backseat to my own health crisis.
The next month, the pandemic hit, so life seemed to stay upside-down. During that surreal period, Melissa passed away.
When I learned the news, I immediately pulled out my notes and pulled up every bit of correspondene I’d ever shared with Melissa and wrote the following piece, originally published on September 9, 2020, in Women This Way.
I never got to meet Melissa in person; our connection was entirely through writing. And, I never met her mother — until she reached out via email last night. The three of us are all connected, it seems, through writing.
As I fell asleep last night, I smiled as I thought about Melissa and all the gifts she left behind, and I was reminded that, when we write, we literally preserve life.
How to Love Life Fiercely and Make It Count
Diagnosed with breast cancer at 23, writer/director Melissa Beck-Boratyn died in June at the age of 32. Her feature film, Ginger, reflects her experience. “I wanted to make a movie about a wild, messy young woman who gets breast cancer, because I knew there were other young people like me — but I couldn’t find them.”
By Christine Wolf in Women This Way, 9/9/20
When I interviewed Melissa Beck-Boratyn about her feature film, Ginger, we both knew she was dying of Stage IV metastatic breast cancer.
When she first discovered a lump in her early twenties, the then-student filmmaker longed for peers to help her navigate the life-altering journey through breast cancer — but she could not find them.
And so, she set out to make a movie.
But, during the process, the redheaded Chicagoan — by then in remission and just two days into casting her movie — received a terminal, Stage IV diagnosis. At that point, she was 27 years old.
When I interviewed Beck-Boratyn, we knew her 31-year-old body was running out of time. We also knew that her film — co-directed with her husband, Jimmy, and lauded by Illinois Governor JB Pritzker and critics everywhere — would live on, reflecting love and authentic perspective on life as a young adult with breast cancer.
A timely meeting.
On November 8, 2019, just after I’d launched Women This Way, an online site spotlighting women as they navigate life, I received a query from Amanda Elliott, TV and Film Marketing Manager at Cow Lamp Films:
I love your Medium column about spotlighting resilient women and thought you would be interested in a story about Ginger, a Chicago film based on a 23 year old filmmaker who was diagnosed with Stage 1 Cancer, and sadly has just been diagnosed for the third time with terminal cancer. Her film was recently picked up by Cow Lamp Films, in hopes to spread and advocate for young women diagnosed and also fundraise with breast cancer organizations. This past October, she was recognized by Governor Pritzker for her work and this film, Ginger, to help young women. Melissa is available for limited interviews, but we’re happy to share her story as the distributor. Best,
TV and Film Marketing Manager, Cow Lamp Films
307 N. Michigan Ave, Suite 500, Chicago, IL 60601
Huh, I thought.
Just one month prior, I’d been raising funds for breast cancer research while training for the Chicago Marathon, so this message really struck a nerve. I wrote back immediately:
What a story. We’re honored to learn more about Ginger and its remarkable filmmaker. I just completed the Chicago Marathon and raised money for The Lynn Sage Foundation, so I have a very personal connection to breast cancer. I’m very sorry to hear about the filmmaker’s prognosis. Whatever I can do to help get word out about her film, I’d like to do it. Might she available for a phone interview tomorrow ? Happy to look at any links/photos/press materials tonight. My best to you. Thank you for reaching out.
On November 11th, 2019, I received a press kit and poured over the details. Two days later, I emailed a series of questions to Cow Lamp Films. On December 3rd, I received an email with Melissa Beck-Boratyn’s personal responses to my questions. Her answers were generous and heartfelt in detail.
Here, in her own words, are the director’s reflections about the film she knew she was meant to make — one that she hoped might “help make cancer suck just a little bit less” — and the life and many loves she knew she’d leave behind.
“I discovered my first lump when I was 22,” Beck-Boratyn wrote. “By the time I was scheduling the diagnostic procedures, I was newly 23. My second early stage diagnosis happened weeks before I turned 25, and my third diagnosis of metastatic (incurable/terminal) breast cancer happened just days before my 28th birthday.” Beck-Boratyn attributed this birthday phenomena to her 3-, 6-, 9-, and 12- month follow ups.
“The idea for the film was a slow burn,” Beck-Boratyn explained. “When I was 23, I wanted to make a movie about a wild, messy young woman who gets breast cancer, because I knew there were other young people like me — but I couldn’t find them. I was craving community, but my first hospital had zero resources for young people.”
Beyond frustrated, Beck-Boratyn longed for connections.
“Social media hadn’t really taken off in the cancer community in 2011,” Beck-Boratyn wrote, “so I thought if I could make a film, it could be seen anywhere by anyone who might be needing it.”
The filmmaker admitted, however, that “I was barely emotionally mature enough to process my first cancer diagnosis — let alone tell a compelling story about it.” Though she knew the idea was always there, she also knew she needed space to heal from her experience before making it into something truly meaningful.
“The film’s ideal audience is the young adult cancer community,” Beck-Boratyn told me. “Anyone who’s on the precipice of transitioning into adulthood knows the experience is stressful, but it’s even more harrowing having to face your own mortality while also questioning how you’ll pay for treatment, navigating being sick while going to school…going to work…dating.”
Beck-Boratyn and her husband, Jimmy, created the film together as MFA students at Chicago’s DePaul University. “We hope this film validates all of these unique experiences,” Beck-Boratyn explained. “That being said, we tried to make the film relatable on a more universal level. We know not everyone in the audience will have or have had cancer, but everyone can relate to the challenge of overcoming big obstacles, finding humor where you can, and dealing with the aftermath of trauma.”
“The day that we got the call [about her StageIV diagnosis], I think it all just seemed impossible,” Beck-Boratyn wrote. “My cancer had spread all over my body, and I think everyone’s first thought was that the film was dead in the water.”
Prior to that day, she had committed to teaching a documentary film to high school women from the Chicago Housing Authority for a 6-week intensive program. “So, the summer was bound to be busy BEFORE my Stage IV cancer crashed the party,” Beck-Boratyn explained.
“I didn’t see any way that I’d be able to start treatment, teach, and make a movie,” Beck-Boratyn remembered. But then, her husband & Co-Director/Producer Jimmy — along with Screenwriter/Producer Ryan Grundtisch and Producer/Production Designer Johnny Woj — spoke up.
According to Beck-Boratyn, “[They] said there was no shame in putting the film on hold, [and] I just couldn’t throw away everything we’d started. For us, this was a good lesson about perseverance. There was no montage or swell of music to tell us we were making the right call. We simply decided to put one foot in front of the other.”
“Mondays through Thursdays I would teach, Fridays I would go to treatment, and on the weekends, we were in production,” Beck-Boratyn recalled.
“There were a lot of added nights, and eventually the documentary program ended, and by the end of August, we’d finished filming,” Beck-Boratyn wrote. Still, the project had a long way to go before completion.
“Ha — and before I began editing, I had [yet another] pep talk with myself about moving forward, because that, too, was a daunting task,” Beck-Boratyn wrote. “Editing wrapped up in 2018, though, and it’s very fulfilling to look at how far we’ve come.”
As Beck-Boratyn recalled, “The low points during production were scarce, but they were most related to directing a film about cancer while living with cancer. When I was diagnosed Stage IV, I revisited the script and wrote in my feelings and fears about dying. Having to direct that level of intensity was challenging.”
But, as for the filmmaking process itself, Beck-Boratyn found many more highs than lows.
“We had the absolute best cast and crew,” Beck-Boratyn wrote. “I know everyone says it, and I know everyone means it, but the support they had for me during the filmmaking process was akin to family. I’ve been on sets since wrapping Ginger, and our chemistry was truly unmatched.”
For Beck-Boratyn, coming to the set was the best part of the process. “Everyone was dedicated, and everyone delivered. Our producers handled catastrophes that are abundant and common filming a low-budget movie, and our marvelously talented actors were so eager to get this story right that they dedicated their limited free time to rehearsing and staying late for the best performances.”
Despite some deeply painful scenes to shoot, Beck-Boratyn said she encouraged her crew to use some of the techniques that help her personally. “The head shave was difficult for everyone on set, partly because of how emotional the film’s moment was, and partly because we only had one take which required meticulous planning. There were a lot of exhausting days, but I’m a huge believer in mental health as physical health, so we took breaks to cry and walk it out and decompress.”
The stuff that matters.
“As women, our stories matter, our lives matter, and our voices matter,” Beck-Boratyn told me via email. “I do believe that women have unique talents in filmmaking and storytelling, and I think it’s essential that we keep working towards lifting those women up.”
During a trip to LA right after she graduated college (“I actually waited to schedule my first biopsy so I could enjoy myself,” Beck-Boratyn wrote), she remembered talking to other women about how rare it was to see women on set — especially as directors.
The filmmaker described a friend of a friend who’d prattled on about how being a woman director wasn’t a realistic goal — and decided right then and there that she’d “just have to find another way to direct.” That conversation, Beck-Boratyn explained, “helped me realize I’m stubborn and persistent, and those are both great qualities to have as an artist.”
When I asked if she had a message to send to aspiring women directors, Beck-Boratyn responded: “The hard part of filmmaking is that it’s competitive. Period. And so, you have to love it, and you have to hustle to create opportunities for yourself where you’re not otherwise finding them. I promise it’ll be worth the work though — for you and for your audience.”
“As women,” Beck-Boratyn said, “our stories matter, our lives matter, and our voices matter.”
The realities of a terminal diagnosis and an uncertain future.
When I interviewed Beck-Boratyn, she summed herself up this way: “I am…simultaneously great and terrible…exhausted and grateful…dying but happy.”
“If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s that there is no black and white anymore. My emotional health is a spectrum,” Beck-Boratyn wrote, “sometimes in the same hour. It’s hard to balance living in the moment and planning for a future that’s one giant looming question mark.”
As we corresponded at the end of 2019, Beck-Boratyn told me, “Physically, it’s been awhile since my last scan, so anyone’s guess is as good as mine. Back in April 2019, I honestly didn’t know if I’d be alive at Christmas, and somehow, it’s December! Anti-depressants, therapy, and welcomed distractions help me live as normally as I can.”
While she described her liver as so covered in tumors that radiologists couldn’t find the right lobe of it on scans, Beck-Boratyn explained she was nevertheless grateful it functioned at all.
Beck-Boratyn painted a vivid picture of the rollercoaster that is cancer, and how she was holding on to as much positivity as possible: “Being almost 4 years into this,” she wrote, “it breaks my heart to see how my body has changed and withered, but I also find myself saying that this body is a miracle. I’m walking, working out, eating, speaking on my own with cancer in my liver, lungs, brain, bones etc. As cliché as it might sound, I do recognize the strong, resilient, capable person I’ve transformed into through all of this.”
“I’m a mess of cancer and everything that comes with it,” Beck-Boratyn wrote, “but I’m a beautiful mess.”
The filmmaker explained that people often mentioned to her that they didn’t know how she’d done it. “The answer is, I didn’t have a choice, because my alternative was — and forever will be — death.” Beck-Boratyn’s clarity about her circumstances was at once beautiful and heartbreaking: “The choices we’ve had to make, the loss and grief we’ve had to bear, the treatments, the doctors, the anger — it’s all changed me,” Beck-Boratyn wrote.
How did she push through? How did she keep going? How did she navigate the days she had left?
As Beck-Boratyn told me, “If I let myself fall into that pattern of obsessing about the future and all of those big questions, or even if I wake up feeling really terrible, I often find myself quickly overwhelmed.” And so, she chose to live in the moment. “Living with cancer means living day by day and, if need be, hour by hour. I’ve actually made horrible, nauseated mornings into really great days by telling myself things, like ‘just take the meds,’ ‘just take the shower — you can sit if you need to’, or ‘just take 5 minutes to lay on your bed in a towel.’ Ha!”
The filmmaker added, “As humans, I believe we should be kinder to ourselves, especially if we’re experiencing setbacks and difficult moments. I actually revisit the idea of one foot in front of the other quite often. Some days I make leaps and bounds, some says I shuffle, some days I rest. Back in April when we started having that dreaded conversation that starts with ‘your scans are bad,’ and ends with ‘you’re running out of treatment options,’ I found myself needing this advice. I tried drugs that made it almost impossible to function. I took breaks from work. I let our home get messy. I slept.”
During our correspondence in 2019, Beck-Boratyn wrote, “Now that I’m on a more tolerable treatment for the time being, I’m noticing that I can do more, eat more, move and breathe MUCH more.”
“Like a hurricane,” she wrote, “there seem to be these places of peace amidst the noise and the chaos, and I’m learning more and more that they exist together. As much as I don’t want to be living a terminal life, it’s the one I’ve got, and no amount of worrying about the future is going to cure my cancer. That means, when I can, I try to make the good days stretch far … and the bad days as comforting as possible.”
“…no amount of worrying about the future is going to cure my cancer.”
“Having a community that gets it is invaluable. My friends and family are beyond supportive, but having a cancer family is…it’s as indescribable as having cancer,” Beck-Boratyn explained. “You don’t understand chemo and treatment unless you’ve endured it. You don’t know how the words you have cancer sound until you’ve lived it. Finding support groups or other community organizations for people with cancer means finding people that will be there for you through your brightest and darkest days.”
Some of her favorite non-profits, she told me, were The Breasties and Stupid Cancer. The Breasties sent Beck-Boratyn on a weekend retreat, during which, the filmmaker said, “I could be vulnerable and honest and open with 24 other incredible women touched by breast or gynecological cancer.” Stupid Cancer hosts meetups that, in Beck-Boratyn’s words, “aren’t traditional support group meetings — meaning we can all play games at an arcade bar and still have an unspoken connection.”
Surrounded by loved ones.
When I asked Beck-Boratyn who her loved ones were and how they were doing, she wrote, “I’m listing only immediate family, because there’s no way to list all my loved ones here. And I’ve been lucky enough to have so many!” As the filmmaker explained, “Jimmy, my husband, has been the best life partner. My mom Cathy, sister Shannon, father-in-law Jim, mother-in-law Bernie, and sister-in-law Jackie are all on this ridiculous ride with me. But, I think for an honest answer, you’d have to ask them how they’re doing.”
Speaking of her loved ones, Beck-Boratyn wrote, “I know it can’t be easy, and many cancer patients will admit they feel guilty for causing of this kind of heartache. But I know they’re handling everything the best they can. They’ve seen me through countless surgeries, scans, bad days, ER visits, and second opinions.”
In addition, the filmmaker lovingly acknowledged how her village kept her going. “My wonderful friends also go out of their way to help me smile. They visit with gifts after surgery, or come in from out of state, or plan weekend getaways to Breckenridge, or buy comfy pants or adopt my passion project as their own when I’m too damn sick. As strong as I might seem, my loved ones are probably stronger because they’ve seen me at my worst and are still standing and still hopeful and still cheering me on.”
“It means everything to have people say thank you for the film,” Beck-Boratyn told me. “As a modest introvert, accepting a compliment is an unending struggle (ha!), but we made this movie to help people. What’s so magical about art is that people take away different things, so I truly love hearing that it helped people in a multitude of ways.”
“We put cancer onscreen, and as a person living with it, I’m so proud of what we’ve created.”
About the positive reception to the film, Beck-Boratyn explained, “I love hearing that it made people grateful for their health or happy to see a realistic, flawed, funny cancer patient onscreen, or that someone decided maybe they should find a therapist or get a dog. We put cancer onscreen, and as a person living with it, I’m so proud of what we’ve created. My only hope is that people will love watching it as much as we loved making it.”
A heartfelt message to the world.
Melissa Catherine Beck-Boratyn left the world on June 21, 2020. She also left a legacy of deep and lasting understanding through a film that reflects and validates the unique journey of young adults diagnosed with cancer.
When I interviewed Beck-Boratyn in 2019, we both knew she was dying. I asked if she had a message she’d like to send to the world. This is what she wrote:
“Be so fully in love with your life — even when it makes you cry or annoyed or irritated — because as humans, we don’t only experience one emotion at a time. Love your life fiercely, and make it count.”
My deepest condolences go out to Melissa Beck-Boratyn’s village of family, friends, students, and admirers.
You can now watch Melissa’s remarkable film, Ginger, through Amazon Prime or here on Tubi.
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Christine Wolf is an author and memoir coach from Chicago. You can follow more of her writing and reach her directly at www.christinewolf.com.
My friend, your work is as incredible as the people that you write for/about! 💕
I'm so glad you've shared this with us. Melissa's story weaving between her words and yours, is so very powerful.