Canberra breast cancer survivor Marina McDonald photographs Lisa Wilkinson
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Canberra breast cancer survivor Marina McDonald photographs Lisa Wilkinson

Most people know Lisa Wilkinson for being in front of the camera as host of the Today show, but Canberra breast cancer survivor Marina McDonald is one of few people who has first-hand experience of her work behind the lens as a photographer.

The TV show host, and self-confessed "photography nut", photographed Ms McDonald after her double mastectomy for the Canon Shine project in 2014.

Canberra breast cancer survivor and photographer Marina McDonald with daughter Sydney Dayal, 7, at  home in Yarralumla.

Canberra breast cancer survivor and photographer Marina McDonald with daughter Sydney Dayal, 7, at home in Yarralumla.Credit:Elesa Kurtz

And now the tables have turned again, with Ms McDonald, now a professional photographer, returning the favour with a portrait of Wilkinson.

Posing for Wilkinson in 2014 reignited Ms McDonald's passion for photography and led to her starting a business with her brother while pursuing personal projects featuring her children Sydney and Noah Dayal.

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Marina McDonald's photo of Today show host Lisa Wilkinson.

Marina McDonald's photo of Today show host Lisa Wilkinson.Credit:Marina McDonald.

"It's been wonderful to immerse myself in something that gives me so much pleasure, it's a creative outlet for me … and if I'm ever not here for my children, if the cancer returns it's a way for me to leave something behind," she said.

After always having a "phobia" about breast cancer, Ms McDonald was diagnosed on Valentine's Day 2013 when a two-centimetre cluster of abnormal cells detected in a mammogram was found to be a five-centimetre cancer.

She chose to have a double mastectomy, despite the cancer being isolated to her left breast and so began a "gruelling" year of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and another operation to remove her lymph nodes when the cancer spread.

Before her operation, Ms McDonald said she was confronted with clinical images when she Googled mastectomy photos

Today show host Lisa Wilkinson's photo of Canberra breast cancer survivor Marina McDonald with her daughter Sydney Dayal in 2014.

Today show host Lisa Wilkinson's photo of Canberra breast cancer survivor Marina McDonald with her daughter Sydney Dayal in 2014.Credit:Lisa Wilkinson

It made her eager to put a human story to the ordeal when approached to pose, and the response was overwhelming.

"I didn't really have a problem with losing the breasts because as far as I was concerned they were the trouble makers," she said.

Lisa Wilkinson's photo of Canberra breast cancer survivor Marina McDonald with her daughter Sydney Dayal in 2014.

Lisa Wilkinson's photo of Canberra breast cancer survivor Marina McDonald with her daughter Sydney Dayal in 2014.Credit:Lisa Wilkinson.

"It's often the unknown that's scary… it's not massive scars across your chest, it's just two thin lines, life goes on."

Wilkinson said that, after years of work with breast cancer charities, she hoped an image of the "inner strength" of a survivor post-mastectomy would give hope to women in the same situation.

"I wanted to show ... this isn't something to be ashamed of … she's just so grateful to be out the other side of this and still be here for her two children," she said.

Wilkinson said some viewers found the portrait confronting when they noticed Ms McDonald's missing breasts as they've never seen the scars of a double mastectomy.

"Initially it's a photograph of beauty, then ... of confrontation … of mothering and parenting … of questioning your reaction, and then feeling humbled by Marina's strength and wondering what you would do in that situation," she said.

Ms McDonald was initially nervous about turning the lens on Wilkinson because of her high profile, but once settling on the concept of a composite image showing her standing still amongst her busy life she "was away".

Ms McDonald said she'd always been vigilant with self-examination before her diagnosis, but had a rare "spider's web" like lobular breast cancer – almost impossible to detect.

After her mastectomy Ms McDonald chose to avoid breast reconstruction and has never bothered with prosthetic breasts.

Initially it was because she didn't want the extra recovery time after travelling from Canberra to Brisbane to access a surgeon.

But now says she has come to accept her body for what it is and jokes that she's the perfect subject for artist friends wanting to avoid having their images of female nipples barred online.

While she is now in remission, she said she felt like a "ticking time bomb" as the initial size and spread of the cancer into her lymph nodes reduced her odds.

"This is where the photography has helped me … it's given me something to focus on that I love … I'm thinking about now rather than looking too far ahead and stressing about what might happen," she said.

Wilkinson said she started taking photos when she bought a camera to visit New York after years of thinking visually as a magazine editor.

"I just thought … I've been telling photographers what I want from an image for such a long time it kind of makes sense that if I look through the lens I should be half decent at doing the same thing," she said.

But she now jokes that she has been "completely shamed" by McDonald's accomplishments as an award-winning professional photographer.

Clare Colley is Head of Audience Engagement at The Australian Financial Review. She was previously an online editor, arts editor and journalist at The Canberra Times.

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