“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
Projects in Khabarovsk and Novosibirsk highlight victims refusing to hide away or be cowed by cancer, challenging prejudice against sufferers.
These vibrant photographs and words show Russian women showing their beauty despite their sufferings from cancer.
Among them in Khabarovsk are Olga Safronova and her son Vadim, 11, who both have cancer. Vadim has leukaemia, and his mother is in the fourth stage of the disease.
In Novosibirsk, one of those posing for the camera is Ekaterina, 27, who had a radical mastectomy on her right breast, and has faced adult women in the street pointing at her after she lost her waist length blonde hair during chemotherapy.
Alyona Chernykh, organiser of the project in Khabarovsk, said the idea of Beauty Against Cancer came to her ‘spontaneously’.
‘Some time ago I started watching Instagram accounts of girls undergoing treatment in various cities,’ she said. ‘I was very touched by their stories, their struggle for life. In one of them I saw a very good, professional photos of the girl who was so beautiful just as she is: with no hair, no eyelashes. And she was perfect.
‘And I thought that here in Khabarovsk we do not have such photo shoots. Girls who get sick, do not have the opportunity to show themselves. Maybe they want to, but it is not accepted in society. As well as to talk about cancer. Like: ‘If I do not see the problem, then it does not exist’. I wanted to change something in the situation.
‘I offered my friend, a photographer, to do this project. Then I turned to other friends: makeup artists, stylists, jewellery-makers. They had only one question: ‘When?’. This encouraged me very much. I went to a good psychologist who was also interested to take part.’
She explained: ‘For woman is hard to take the loss of hair, eyelashes – this is subconsciously associated with the loss of femininity. Cancer treatment is very long and exhausting, but we want to give support.
‘And at our meetings, and photo sessions, we don’t talk about cancer. Of course, we do not pretend that it doesn’t exist, but we want to give our participants time to forget about it and get happiness from this very moment. Through the photos we show how beautiful they are.
Alyona encourages those taking part in the project to believe in themselves as women, to feel their femininity.
‘The initial goal of the project was to show that femininity does not go away with the loss of hair, eyelashes, eyebrows, nor even with serious treatment. The woman is still beautiful, wanted and loved. To help in accepting themselves here and now: do not be afraid of their reflection in the mirror, do not be afraid to show themselves, do not hide.
‘It’s also true that participating in the photo shoot, and the preparations for it, bring new, positive emotions, which form a powerful reserve for future disease control.’
Here, women taking part wear crowns, the aim being to show them as ‘queens’. Some of them spoke bravely to local online newspaper NGS. Ekaterina, for example, highlighted the additional suffering that many face from people’s attitudes to cancer.
‘I have cancer of the second stage without metastasis. Or, I prefer to say that ‘I had it’. I had a radical mastectomy on my right breast,’ she said. ‘The last chemotherapy was at the end of August 2016. Now I’m preparing for plastic surgery -to make the breast beautiful. While wearing special bras, it looks like body armour!
Margarita, 27, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. ‘I got the diagnosis during my long-awaited, planned pregnancy … I’d been preparing, doing sports, drank vitamins, passed tests, I removed my moles. I didn’t even know that I was already seriously ill.
‘I was struck by severe apathy, I just couldn’t get up in the morning. But things do not wait, I tried to do everything: work, housework, sports, leisure.
‘In the 7th month a huge lump on my neck appeared. The doctors were surprised and blamed it on my pregnancy. They said my organism protects the child, but eventually it was question mark lymphoma.
‘Then the doctors told me: ‘You have a fatal diagnosis. You need an urgent Cesarean and chemotherapy. As a result of four consultations in the maternity hospital, I was allowed to give birth by myself and to breast feed. How happy I was. On 15 January, I gave birth to my son Bogdan weighing 4,080 grams.
‘A month later, I started to choke and was frightened. I ran to the nearest pharmacy. And then my husband forced me to the hospital. I went through six courses of chemotherapy, radiation therapy. My husband called me ‘G.I. Jane’.
‘And I tried to be patient and endure everything. And cry when my relatives couldn’t see.
‘I thank my husband and my mother, it was a very hard time for them. But they, like The Steadfast Tin Soldier, survived. Close relatives, friends, classmates, they all rallied and tried to help. They even raised funds for expensive tests. Only because of their help and support am I now in remission.’