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Stephanie Byram (Gieschen) VIEW PROFILE

Stephanie Byram (Gieschen)

A brave lover of life loses cancer battle

Tuesday, June 12, 2001

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Stephanie Byram, 38, whose life with breast cancer was chronicled in photographs, videotape and her own words, died Saturday at her home in Squirrel Hill.

Stephanie Byram poses for a photograph taken at Phipps Conservatory in 1993, while she and photographer Charlee Brodsky worked on a documentary chronicling her life with breast cancer. She died Saturday at her home in Squirrel Hill. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

She had a double mastectomy in 1993 after she was diagnosed with a very aggressive breast cancer. Six years later, the disease had spread to her spine and liver. In November, UPMC Health System surgeons used beams of radiation in a gamma knife procedure to erase a spot of cancer in her brain.

Documentary photographer Charlee Brodsky's black and white images captured Byram's strength and beauty during the ups and downs of the disease. The pictures will soon be published as a book by the University of Pittsburgh Press. With independent film producer Mary Rawson, the project expanded into a video that is currently available on Amazon.com.

The photo diary grew out of Byram's desire to support breast cancer research.

Doctors had told her that she had a 50 percent chance of surviving five years and a 40 percent chance of surviving 10 years. She decided to run in every Susan B. Komen Race for the Cure in the country to raise money, and eventually she completed 29. For the first runs, she asked her friend Brodsky, a photography professor at Carnegie Mellon University, to take her picture for a press packet, and "Stephanie's Project" was born.

The series includes images of Byram's flat, naked torso -- she chose not to have reconstructive surgery of her breasts. In one, her arms and head are not in the frame, evoking the sculpture of Venus DeMilo. The Venus photo, as they call it, made Byram see her torso as a work of art, she wrote in her notes for the project.

"This photo was a turning point for her," Brodsky said. "It was the first time she had seen her body as beautiful as opposed to disfigured."

She added that the project was not intended to be a political statement about reconstructive surgery nor a prescription for life.

"It was just her life and her story and that's what we wanted to tell," Brodsky said. "She loved to travel and to tell her story. I personally believe the project helped her live longer."

Byram indulged in neither self-pity nor in playing the martyr, said former Post-Gazette staff writer Ellen Mazo, who met the young woman in 1994 and followed her story. The women were also running buddies until illness forced Byram to slow down.

"I was struck initially by her determination and sense of wanting to really live," Mazo said. "She had a joy for life and everybody else kind of relished it. She made other people feel good even when she felt really bad."

Although her last years were dotted with recurrences of cancer and her prognosis grew worse each time, Mazo recalled, Byram never gave up on living. She took ballroom dancing lessons because it was something she had always wanted to learn.

"Steph looked for ceremony and meaning in simple things," said her husband, Garth Gibson, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon.

They married June 18, 1999, and traveled to Peru for a honeymoon. They hiked 35 miles during five days to an altitude of 14,000 feet. In the final stretch, they hunted for heart-shaped rocks along the trail and exchanged them in a personal wedding ceremony atop the mountain.

Like Byram, Gibson was not afraid to face her breast cancer. Of getting married, he said, "It was important to make a commitment, for her to know that I meant to be there until the end."

Byram was born and raised in Spokane, Wash. A bassoon player, she went to Washington State University on a music scholarship and completed a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1985. She took a leave of absence from an environment and technology research and development lab and arrived in Pittsburgh in 1990.

At Carnegie Mellon, she completed a master's degree and, in 1997, a doctorate in behavioral decision theory. Her Ph.D. thesis examined women's reactions to mammograms and their results. Her postdoctoral work focused on the medical impact on patients of mammogram results that suggest disease but ultimately turn out to be incorrect.

Byram, who attended First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, explored a variety of spiritual belief systems, including visiting with Peruvian Indian shamans, going to reservations to meet Navaho medicine men and studying Zen Buddhism.

"This was not an act of desperation," Gibson noted. "Living with the cancer was finding a way to accept the cancer and find joy in life. She was looking for spiritual wisdom in shaping that."

Stephanie's Project was a way of sharing her perspective about life.

"Even in the midst of chemotherapy and a threat to her life, there is joy and beauty. There are things to strive for," Gibson said.

When it became clear last winter that medications were not going to halt the damage cancer was inflicting upon her liver, Byram returned to Seattle to go on a road trip wth her father. Using back roads, they explored western states, including Oregon, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. They found the homestead that had belonged to Byram's father's grandfather. She met a potter in New Mexico whose work she had long admired.

"Jaundice had set in and her back was giving her trouble and her liver was growing," Gibson said. "That was not going to deter her. She was camping outside and she was traveling by car through rough roads for long miles."

Byram then went to Toronto to spend time with her husband's family.

Back home in Pittsburgh, she began to slow down. She grew weaker and had no appetite. On Thursday, she was admitted to UPMC Shadyside. Her large circle of friends quickly surrounded her.

On Saturday, it became clear after consultation with her doctors that nothing could be done. Byram returned to the Squirrel Hill home that she decorated and renovated as a last gift to her husband.

"Within an hour, she realized she was home and let go quietly," Gibson said.

Byram is survived by her parents, Barbara and Mike Byram, of Tacoma, Wash.; her grandparents, Fae and Benjamin Novotny, and Wilfred R. Byram, all of Twisp, Wash.; her aunt, Betty Wacenske, Chattaroi, Wash.; and her sister, Staci Byram, of Issaquah, Wash.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 17, at the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, 605 Morewood Ave., Shadyside. Contributions in her honor may be made to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, P.O. Box 650309, Dallas, TX 75265-0309.

The Stephanie Project can be viewed by going online at http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~garth/stephanie/.
 



 
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04/23/11 12:47 AM #1    

Greg Peterson

To our fellow Saxon classmate Stephanie, may you rest in peace. We will honor you at our "30" reunion this summer.


 


04/24/11 01:19 PM #2    

Kenney Johnson

Gonna miss you at the reunion Steph.  Rest in peace sweetie.  You won't be forgotten.


04/29/11 12:50 AM #3    

Greg Peterson

Obituary:
Stephanie Byram Dedicated Herself to Breast Cancer Awareness, Research

Stephanie Byram, a post-doctoral research fellow in the Psychology Department, died at her home in Squirrel Hill on June 9 after an eight-year battle with breast cancer. She was 38.

Byram underwent a double mastectomy in 1993 and since that time had tirelessly dedicated herself to promoting breast cancer research, education and awareness. She participated in 30 of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation's Race for the Cure events across the country and had helped to raise more than $50,000 for breast cancer research and education.

With the help of Associate Professor of Design and photographer Charlee Brodsky, she published a Web site (www.thestephanieproject.org) that tells the story of "how one woman pieces together a new self after breast cancer." Byram and Brodsky also produced a video of her story, which is available on Amazon.com, and a book will soon be published.

Byram and Brodsky had given lectures, presentations, slide shows and inspirational talks to groups around the country.

"Stephanie was my subject, my collaborator and my friend, in no particular order," Brodsky said. "There was never a separation between our work and our play. That was part of our bond."

Brodsky said they motivated one another and enjoyed being together.

"We both gained a lot of insight into life from working with each other," she said.

Bryam This past July, Byram was recognized by the Komen Foundation and BMW of North America as Pittsburgh's "Local Hero."

"I feel flattered to be chosen both as a breast cancer survivor and as an artist communicating the tragedy and hope the disease brought to me," she said following the award presentation. "It's complex, but, together with my collaborator Charlee Brodsky, I want people to realize there's a lot of living to be done, even under difficult circumstances."

Her husband since 1998, Associate Professor of Computer Science Garth Gibson, said Byram had taken hiking trips with family and friends in Nepal and Peru. He said she went on a safari in Zambia and Botswanna, snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, canoeing in Canada and camping in American National Parks.

Gibson said in the last two months she took a trip to visit family and friends in her home state of Washington and in Toronto, Canada.

"I am so very proud of Stephanie, of the life she lived and the noble way she prepared for her death," Gibson said.

A native of Spokane, Wash., Byram earned her bachelor's degree in business administration from Washington State University. She moved to Pittsburgh in 1990 to study social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon. She earned her doctor's degree in behavioral and decision theory in 1998.

Her doctoral thesis was about women's reactions to their mammogram test results. Her research focused on how the mind affects the body in the development and treatment of cancer.

Contributions in Byram's honor may be made to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, P.O. Box 650309, Dallas, Texas 75265-0309.

Bruce Gerson (06-27-01)


04/30/11 08:03 PM #4    

Kenney Johnson

You're brave, a fighter and a hero Steph. 


08/15/11 10:12 PM #5    

Kenney Johnson

Steph,

Our big weekend is just days away!  I am so excited to see everyone again!  I know you will be with us in spirit.  We'll miss seeing you but trust me you won't be forgotten.

Kenney


08/21/11 08:24 AM #6    

Kenney Johnson

Steph,

We released a balloon for you last night.  Look for it in heaven, it's white with a flashing light.

Kenney


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