In the summer of 2013 Thomas and Dyar travelled to China and Mexico with the LiveSTRONG foundation as part of a documentary team. They interviewed and photographed cancer survivors, their loved ones, and public health officials in order to capture the foreign perception of cancer which, sadly, has for a long time been poisoned by cultural stigmas.
For this particular piece they asked survivors how they would describe their cancer in the physical realm, to give it a face. Then Thomas and Dyar created images of their answers and paired these with portraits of the victims to give others insight into the struggle with cancer and to inspire those currently fighting it.
Guadalupe described the primary stigma people associate with cancer in Mexico: “to most people, cancer equals death.”
When death is all that comes to mind upon diagnosis, the future looks bleak.
“To me, cancer was like a deep, inescapable hole,” she says.
But thankfully, with the help of others, she climbed her way out. And now she helps other patients do the same.
“A lot of women do not know what to do when diagnosed; I walk them through the process. I am a navigator.”
Zhichu Hu represents the positive change taking place in China’s perception of cancer.
To her, “Cancer is like rotten meat inside your body. You can’t see it but you know something’s going bad.” The invisibility of the disease, stoked by fear and ignorance, causes denial among many Chinese patients. Zhichu Hu did not believe her diagnosis until after her first operation. “When I got cancer, I had no information,” she says, “Now, new patients have more information; for them, cancer does not equal death.”
Now she has a new message for cancer: “You are not as strong as you look, and I will fight you.”
Zhou Pei has fought stomach cancer for twenty-three years.
Countless treatments fight back hordes of cancerous cells time and again, never able to fully wipe them out.
“Cancer can be seen as many tiny small things that take a long time to defeat, like mice.”
Giving the disease form helps her face it head on: “We know we can beat much bigger and scarier things than mice, like monsters and tigers.
It takes the fear away from the little cancer.”
As Gong Chan Cheng describes it, he has been lost in a maze of cancer.
The exhausting side effects of the medication keep him bed-ridden most of the day. It frustrates him because he knows that getting out to exercise and socialize is key to recovering strength.
And as you can see here, he is getting out. He is recovering.
We asked what he would tell the disease now, and he responded, in perfect English, “Bye bye!”
At 31, Yun Zheng Ping was diagnosed only days after his marriage. The doctors told him he had only one year left to live.
“I was so angry and desperate. I tore up a whole calendar of a year.”
For Zheng Ping, cancer is a paper tiger. At first it appears scary and frightening, but as you get stronger, the cancer weakens. When you truly look at it, “you see it’s really just paper, and you can crush it.”
He says he is wiser now, that cancer taught him an important lesson:
“Life’s true goal is not to live longer, but to live wider.”
Amidst the other responses, Wang Zhi Hua’s metaphor might seem strange.
How could stomach cancer be seen as a balloon?
Zhi Hua’s explanation reveals the power we hold over the disease.
“Cancer is like a balloon,” he says, “because we can pop it if we choose to.”
For Veronica Gazcon, diagnosed with stage II colon cancer in 2008, cancer is a hot, expanding, black smoke that pressures you from every angle of your life.
Veronica has long held a grudge with the invisible killer; it took her mother.
“What hurts the most is despite my age, I find I still need my mom.”
A mother herself now, she fights for Mariana and Natalia, her two daughters.
Her message to cancer: “You took from me the thing I loved most...but you won’t get me.”
Jose Maria Marti, a singer-songwriter and lymphoma survivor from Mexico City, epitomizes the reflective quality.
Upon diagnosis, Jose began thinking about his past and present in a whole new light, “because you don’t know if there’s going to be a future.”
Music became his refuge, “I started writing about mental and spiritual health...creativity helped me fight cancer.” And through his performances, he has touched and continues to touch many other patients in the midst of their own struggles.
For Jose, “Cancer is like seeing yourself in the mirror, like finding yourself. A normal mirror shows only the outside, the physical...cancer helps you see the inside, what you are made of. It helps you find your spirit, and it can be as terrible or as good as you want to see it. Cancer is a reflection of the soul.”