Through the eyes of teens with cancer: how a photography project helped SickKids’ teens fight cancer
By Ana Fernandes, Intern, Communications and Public Affairs
The picture portrays almost a blur, the rear of a red car running through an ordinary street. The context behind the photo, however, tells a whole different story.
“It’s like a car passing. It happens so quickly, but you also go through so much. There’s never a moment for you to just pause and take it all in.” This is how 16-year-old Salomé Oliveira dos Santos described her experience with cancer through a photograph she took while participating in a seven-week therapeutic group at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), called Photovoice.
No doubt, for any patient, cancer can be a hard disease to deal with. The experience is often even more challenging and complex for teens, who may already be going through many changes during this phase in life.
SickKids' social workers Sonia Lucchetta and Wendy Shama first learned about the Photovoice therapeutic approach at a conference in 2016. Considering the unique needs that teen oncology patients have for a peer-to-peer support network and mechanisms to better communicate with their families and doctors, Lucchetta and Shama felt that Photovoice would offer teens an avenue to express themselves and to connect with one another.
Funded by the Garron Family Cancer Centre, the seven-week program put a point-and-shoot camera in the hands of six teenagers in cancer treatment, aged 13 to 18. The teens took photos based on themes they came up with together (strength, fear, hope, struggle and true friendship) and discussed them as a group every week.
"We could have just done a support group, but I think we wouldn't have the same richness we got through our sessions with the photo component. Many activities at the hospital are geared towards the younger children, so it was quite important to us to create something directed to the teens, since they have very particular needs," says Shama.
"From day one it struck us to see their maturity and how open they were in talking about their treatment. And it was amazing to see how they took ownership of the project, connected with their peers and really created that safe space to talk about their experiences with cancer,” says Lucchetta. "There is something about the photo, the distance that it creates. It allows you to externalize, talk about that picture instead of talking about yourself and that creates an opportunity for very candid conversations."
What both of the social workers describe becomes clear when looking at the pictures and talking to the teenagers who participated in Photovoice:
“I’m not very good at articulating myself, so Photovoice allowed me to express my feelings and cope with the treatment.” – Maryam Farah, 18
“Before Photovoice, I didn’t feel like I belonged. This project was important because it made feel part of a group, like I had gained acceptance.” – Salomé Oliveira dos Santos, 16
“We got to connect in a special way after having a bad experience with the disease. It was very good to make friends with others going through something similar.” – Emma Neagu, 14
“We would only meet five to seven-year-olds here at the hospital. This gave us a chance to meet other teens and it felt really good to talk to someone my age also fighting cancer.” – Yasmine Dabir, 17
“Photography is a very interesting way to start a conversation. I loved listening to the other teens and to relate it to my own experience with the treatment.” – Pavlos Glover, 13
“It was great to connect with kids of my age. I felt overwhelmed at first, but after the second session we were like family.” – Marcus Augusto, 15
On Monday, Sept. 25, as part of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, SickKids hosted a photography exhibit featuring the work of the first six teens to participate in Photovoice at the hospital. Shama and Lucchetta are publishing two papers on the therapeutic value of Photovoice among teens actively receiving cancer care, but in the meantime, given the positive response, they plan to continue to offer this therapeutic group every year.