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Beauty Against Cancer: inspiring pictures show women fighting back

By Anna Liesowska
27 January 2017

Projects in Khabarovsk and Novosibirsk highlight victims refusing to hide away or be cowed by cancer, challenging prejudice against sufferers.

Participants and organisers of the project 'Beauty Against Cancer' in Khabarovsk. Picture: Tatyana Kritskaya

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. 

Beauty Against Cancer Novosibirsk

In Novosibirsk women taking part wear crowns, the aim being to show them as 'queens'. Picture: Asya Molochkova

'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 openly strives for a more enlightened view of cancer by society.  

'In fact, the mechanism of cancer in a biological sense has not been fully studied so far,' she said. 'No one knows the reason why cancer cells suddenly begin to divide. And cancer is usually found in our country either by accident or when it is too late. 

Olga and Vadim

Olga Safronova and her son Vadim, 11, both have cancer. Picture: Tatiana Kritskaya

'But these people do not deserve any estrangement and do not want to be pitied. Of course, financial aid is necessary, but in some situations moral support is more important: a kind word, accepting people as they are, understanding and sincere compassion. We usually associate this disease with death, but for more than 10 years, most types of cancer are successfully treated, when people come to the doctors in time.'

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. 

Anastasia Tyutina Anastasia Tyutina

Anastasia Tyutina, Khabarovsk. Pictures: Tatiana Kritskaya

'But I also prepare the participants to different emotions from the public. Not all the people can take it normally, not everyone is sane. I told the girls: 'If there are any problems, please contact me, I'll deal with everything. I will not allow anyone to offend you.'

She tells an interesting story which highlights the confused attitudes to cancer in society. 

'When we made one of the shoots in a restaurant, men, who were having lunch there, asked to be photographed with our girls, as they thought that it was some advertising or fashion photo shoot. 

'And when they learned that these are not the  professional models, and why they were having their pictures taken, they looked so lost. Their faces changed, they were perplexed, but they also supported us. 

Natalia


Natalia

Natalia: 'I confess, if I had no hair at that time, I wouldn't have done the shoot'. Pictures: Svetlana Tyutrina

'At that moment I realized that the idea of the project has achieved its goal. People with cancer live a full life and do not differ from others. We give our girls confidence. It is very important that they see themselves beautiful.'

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.'

Anastasia Anastasia

'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.' Pictures: Pavel Sabudzinsky

One participant in Khabarovsk was Natalia. 'I didn't agree at once,' she admitted. 'I thought: 'Why do I need this? What if I don't like it?', but in the end I decided to go, because I wanted to convey to people that the cancer is not a sentence. 

'It's possible to live fully, to enjoy every day and not give up. And get some positive emotions. The project has given me a lot of positives. I liked the attitude of all the people involved. I feel completely comfortable, and everything was so easy.

'You know, after the disease many things change in the mind. If you used to feel some uncertainty about the future, the probability of failure, after cancer all baseless fears disappeared and what remains is onlyfear of life and death. You're afraid for your life and health. And have a more relaxed attitude to everything else. And life is updated, it becomes calmer, more rational.

'I confess, if I had no hair at that time, I wouldn't have done the shoot. I present myself to the world as a woman, and hair for me is an important attribute of femininity. We need a certain strength of character to decide on shoots without wigs, just as we are...'

Olga


Olga

Olga Danyuk, Khabarovsk. Pictures: Yaseniya Valkovskaya

Others have not spoken about their lives, for example Olga and her son, but let the pictures do the talking. 

In Novosibirsk, pictures of the participants in what is a similar but separate project will be featured in an exhibition which opens on 3 February, ahead of World Cancer Day, the following day. 

The organiser of the project, make-up artist Anna Cherpinskaya, said: 'Over the past year, my acquaintance was ill with ovarian cancer. She came back from South Korea, where she was undergoing treatment, to see her mother and ... died. For all of us it was a terrible surprise, and I was plunged into a severe shock.' 

She and her friend Maria Volovik, a designer, decided to start this project along with photographer Asya Molochkova. 

Tatiana

Tatiana Kovalenko, Khabarovsk. Picture: Sergey Makogonov

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!

'I took it all quite calmly - it was just hard that I was left here alone. I have a daughter, but she, my mother and relatives were far away. My ex-husband came,  he took our daughter away, she was just 4  then. 

'I had then endless surgeries,  and check-ups ... There was no time to think too much, I just packed up and went to the surgery. But I was very lucky - I have best friends. 

'After the surgery, it was just uncomfortable to sleep sitting for two weeks on cushions. Now I look at myself normally when I come out of the shower, and I'm not afraid of  mirrors anymore. 

Backstage


Backstage

'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.' Pictures: @krasota_protiv_raka

'At first, when I was dressing, I looked the other way ... You know the diagnosis, but it is not visible, and people do not see it. And when you're not physically like everyone else, you have to hide. Now I can take seeing all my scars.

'Our society condemn bald girls. So I'm going along the street, in a dress and sneakers, but bald. And there were so many glances at me, and uncomplimentary discussions in the line at the store. Adult women did not hesitate to point their fingers at me.

'I try to treat it with humour. I was a girl aged 26, not deprived of male attention with blonde hair to my waist. There were a lot of enthusiastic glances when I went to the gym and was healthy. And then came the diagnosis. I could not go to the gym, and there was surgery, pain, and I realised that part of my visual appeal had gone. 

'But I was more scared of other things. When there is no responsibility for someone else's life, maybe, it is easier. I understood that I had a daughter, and  how will she cope if I am not here? 

Ekaterina


Ekaterina

Ekaterina, 27: 'I also used to think that death is something that happens to others. But now, once I got ill, I realised that there is nothing terrible here.' Pictures: Asya Molochkova

'I also used to think that death is something that happens to others. But now, once I got ill, I realised that there is nothing terrible here.' 

Maria, 30, said she was diagnosed with acute leukaemia 16 months ago. 'Then it sounded like a death sentence. In September 2015 the divided my life into 'before' and 'after'. 

'I'm a loving wife and mother of two wonderful girls, and at that moment, when I was hospitalised, one was 10 months old, the elder one was 7. 

'Before my illness I worked in a kindergarten and school, as a choreography teacher. Everyone, from the smallest to the biggest, I passed through my heart, trying to instil in them a bit of warmth and kindness, to teach them to dance and enjoy life.

'From the first chemotherapy I'm in remission, and it pleases me and my family. I'm very grateful to the doctor who treated me. But the risk of recurrence remains. I live with the thought that at any moment the disease can return and worsen.

Maria

Maria, 30: 'Scary, that my beloved family will be here without me. It is terrible to die and never see your loved ones.' Picture: Asya Molochkova

And it's very scary. 'Scary, that my beloved family will be here without me. It is terrible to die and never see your loved ones.'

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. 

Margarita

Margarita, 27: ''I thank my husband and my mother, it was a very hard time for them. But they, like The Steadfast Tin Soldier, survived.' Picture: Asya Molochkova

'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.'

Lyubov

'I was fighting and will always fight. I love my family, love life, I breathe deeply. My policy is lifelong remission!' Picture: Asya Molochkova

Lyubov, 31, has blood cancer, Hodgkin's lymphoma, and is now in stage IV. I got the diagnosis in September 2015. A mediastinal tumour - 16 centimetres. I  withered very fast,  coming to my treatment looking like a hunched granny, very thin. I had to sleep sitting up because the tumour was pressing on my lungs ...

'I had 8 cycles of chemotherapy plus radiation with memorable special effects. I was fighting and will always fight. I love my family, love life, I breathe deeply. My policy is lifelong remission!

'What is happiness? To meet my husband from work, to bring my son to the kindergarten by myself, to sleep on my stomach, to climb up to the fourth floor without suffocating, and  to enjoy every day.' 

Comments (1)

These brave and beautiful women are an inspiration for anyone who suffers or has suffered this insidious malady, cancer, that kills so many folks worldwide. As a 75-year-old cancer survivor it does my heart good to see these brave young women show themselves during and after treatments. God Bless all you wonderful courageous women for sharing your stories with us.
Ozzie Finley, Point Pleasant, United States of America
06/02/2017 02:58
10
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1

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