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Cancer The Good Fight

A Hopeful Lens

How this mom’s personal tragedy inspired a global photography project.

In December 2011, after Cynthia Dawson’s four-year-old daughter Ava started losing her balance, Ava was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor called diffused intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). Ava’s only treatment options were experimental, so the family moved from Texas to Arizona so Ava could participate in a clinical trial.

A self-proclaimed hobbyist photographer, Dawson looked for a photographer in Phoenix who was willing do a pro bono photo shoot with Ava, documenting the girl’s kind spirit and love of pink for posterity. To her surprise and disappointment, Dawson came up empty.

Later, Ava’s tumor progressed and the family returned home to Texas, where Dawson knew a larger network of photographers. Ava had her photo shoot in 2012, one month before she died. At that point, Ava had already lost her ability to walk, so it came at a grave time for the family. “She didn’t understand what was happening to her body,” Dawson says.

Still, dressing up in a pink dress and a sparkly gold crown brought Ava joy. “At her session she was very happy and she was able to be herself and laugh and giggle,” Dawson says. “To have those memories of her being so joyful is something we always treasure. [Those photos] mean everything to us. It’s a physical reminder of her.”

Photo: The Gold Hope Project

The Gold Hope Project

Dawson called that photo shoot the first Gold Hope session. She saw a need for pro bono photography services to help other families dealing with pediatric cancer create memories and share their stories. “When Ava was sick, I wanted people to know more about the things she was going through, what her diagnosis meant,” Dawson says. “Being able to share their child’s journey is so therapeutic, to let the public know, ‘my child is not a statistic.’ I think a lot of the times people hear certain statistics and it’s easy to forget, it’s real people behind the numbers.”

When Ava was sick, I wanted people to know more about the things she was going through, what her diagnosis meant… My child is not a statistic.

To that end, Dawson co-founded the nonprofit organization Gold Hope Project, which achieved 501(c)3 nonprofit status in late 2014. The organization works with professional photographers all over the world (over 500 at last count) to photograph “fighters” (kids battling cancer), survivors, and their families. They also create remembrance photos for kids who’ve already passed. The organization then shares fighter stories on its blog to raise awareness about pediatric cancer. Dawson says proudly they completed their 500th fighter session this summer.

Photo: The Gold Hope Project

Destigmatizing Illness Through Photography

Erin Wilkos’s son Nate is one of those fighters. About a year after Nate was diagnosed with acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, Wilkos saw a Facebook post about the Gold Hope Project and applied for a session. “We weren’t sure if Nate was going to make it or not,” Wilkos says. “He almost passed away a few times. We figured a professionally done photo, even if it was the last memory of him, would be something we could cherish.”

Fortunately, it wasn’t the last memory for this Connecticut family. “Nate is 15 and is doing absolutely fabulous,” Wilkos says. “He is nine years off chemo and just joined the football team and is a junior firefighter.”

Nate and family still do cherish the photo shoot experience. “The photographer met with him and myself and my husband,” Wilkos says. “Nate was really into the army and liked owls, so she set up the most amazing backdrop and had an army uniform for him. He loved it!”

GPH gives families the option to order an album of images from their session, so Wilkos did. But their album got mixed up with another family. “Our book went to someplace near Alaska and we got someone else’s book,” Wilkos says. “In communicating with her, I discovered she had a farm that had snowy owls. We exchanged books and she sent along a bunch of photos of snowy owls for Nate. We check in every once in awhile.”

Photo: The Gold Hope Project

A Life-Changing Photo Shoot

Of course, the Gold Hope sessions don’t just benefit the fighters and their families. Some of the photographers who volunteer their time and expertise also find the experience cathartic. Having two kids of friends get diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and another friend’s kid diagnosed with a rare blood disease “hit me in a way that I couldn’t put into words,” says Brittany Blake, a photographer in Orange County, California. “I knew that I wanted to give back.”

In September 2017, Blake shot her first fighter session, which she describes as “life changing.” Her nine-year-old fighter was in remission from leukemia. “She was so strong but you could also tell cancer had broken her in so many ways,” she says. “I had a daughter who was a year older at the time. As a mother, it was heart-breaking to try to imagine everything this girl had been through.” Blake stays in touch with several of the families she’s photographed.

Photo: The Gold Hope Project

Dawson says these fighters and their families “have a really unique spirit usually and I think that definitely rubs off on the photographers who get to work with them one on one.”

As the Gold Hope Project grows, Dawson hopes to raise money to help fund critical research on pediatric cancers. “The stats are unfair when it comes to pediatric cancer specific research, a fact I learned after Ava got sick,” she says. “Her type of cancer had no new medical advancements in over 40 years due to lack of research. This year we will be able to join other organizations and fund research grants specific for DIPG and we are hopeful that one of these research studies will lead to better treatment options and one day a cure.”


For fighters stories or to find out how you can get involved, check out The Gold Hope Project’s website.

Cancer The Good Fight

The Young Invisibles Of Cancer

"In most people's minds, cancer isn't a college student," says Matthew Zachary of Stupid Cancer. "It's a bald kid, or a 65-year-old woman..."

Ask any random twenty-something if they want to have kids someday, and you’ll get a host of answers. “Maybe.” “Definitely not.” “If I meet the right partner.” “Yes, absolutely!” “I don’t know.” Which is, if you think about it, the great thing about being in your twenties. You can answer whatever you want to the question, because you still have time. You can always change your mind.

Unless you get cancer. Then the decision might just be taken away from you.

The lack of awareness about fertility and cancer treatments is something that gets under the skin of Matthew Zachary, founder of Stupid Cancer, the country’s largest nonprofit dedicated to providing support, awareness, and advocacy for young adults with cancer. The father of two twin six-year olds whom, but for chance, he might never have been able to have, fertility is a particularly important subject.

“Fertility should be the cornerstone of young adult cancer,” Zachary tells me by phone, with the thick Brooklyn accent of a born-and-raised New Yorker. “Cancer sucks enough to deal with as a young person without it taking away our ability to be moms or dads one day. But most young adults diagnosed with cancer are never told their treatments can make them sterile.”

Outside of running Stupid Cancer, Matthew Zachary is a trained concert pianist who has released two albums.

Outside of running Stupid Cancer, Matthew Zachary is a trained concert pianist who has released two albums.

Zachary knows what he’s talking about. In 1995, while studying film at the University of Southern California, Zachary’s grad school career was derailed by brain cancer, when he was just 21. And that wasn’t the only thing cancer derailed. A classically-trained concert pianist, one of Zachary’s earliest symptoms was the loss of mobility in his left hand, rendering him incapable of doing one of the things he loved most at a time when he was already sick. “It took a while for the doctors to find anything,” Zachary admits ,“but I can’t fault them. How many kids who are pianists exhibit early brain tumor symptoms?”

Eventually, Zachary was diagnosed, and began a regimen of surgeries and radiation, which eventually saw him go into remission and allowed him to play piano again. But during this period, Zachary learned first hand that young adults are one of the most invisible subgroups of cancer patients. “In most people’s minds, cancer isn’t a college student, or a teenager, or a thirty-something,” Zachary points out. “It’s a bald kid, or a 65-year-old woman running a relay for breast cancer.” The issue is that young adults in the prime of their life are somehow viewed as immortal, or at the very least, tougher and more capable of standing up to the hardships of cancer than other groups.

In most people’s minds, cancer isn’t a college student, or a teenager, or a thirty-something…

But Zachary cautions this isn’t necessarily so. First of all, there’s the logistics of dealing with cancer as a young adult. “Statistically, most young adults are underinsured, which can be in many ways worse than being uninsured when you’re dealing with cancer,” Zachary says. “If you’re underinsured, you’re stuck with your employer’s provider when you have cancer, and they can more easily deny you coverage. There are people who quit their jobs when they get cancer, just so they can go on Medicaid.” No wonder, then, that about two-thirds of all bankruptcies are medical, and about two-thirds of those are for people under 44.

Past the merely logistical issues with getting cancer at a young age, though, come the psychological. Because let’s face it. As young adults, the best of us are, as Zachary succinctly puts it, “hot messes” trying to figure out who we are, and how to make our way in the world. Now add the psychic baggage of cancer to the mix. “Take all the stuff that’s really hard to do in your twenties and then multiply it by thousands,” Zachary says. “Take dating. You’re dying, you’re bald, you’re sick all the time, and in my case, I was impotent. Who wants to date the cancer guy?”

Zachary’s been married for 13 years, so someone obviously did want to date the cancer guy. But the fears, the loneliness, and the invisibility he felt as a young man with brain cancer dealing with these issues are the ones which eventually led Zachary to found Stupid Cancer, in order to be able to provide resources and solidarity to more people going through what he did. What started as a grassroots club for young people with cancer has now, twenty years later, evolved into an international community. “You don’t have to be a young adult to support Stupid Cancer. You can be a boomer, a teenager, a middle-aged American, whatever. It’s a community for everyone, just viewed through this lens, which is eventually relatable to everyone, about what it’s like to be in your twenties and thirties.”

Matthew Zachary speaking at Cancer Con.

Matthew Zachary speaking at Cancer Con.

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to fertility. As his kids, home from school, rough-housed in the background, Zachary repeatedly told me on the phone that if there’s anything the cancer community needs to do better, it’s make sure that young cancer patients have a reproductive future.

“Most people diagnosed with cancer in their fertile years are simply not told their treatments can make them sterile, or impede their ability to become a mom or dad one day,” Zachary says bluntly. “There are women who have stage 4 cancer whose doctors never tell them about fertility preservation, who end up living, and never being able to have kids, because their doctors made that decision for them.”

That’s why Stupid Cancer advocates for legislation where caregivers will be legally responsible to ensure fertility preservation–including banking sperm, freezing eggs, and harvesting embryos–for cancer patients. After all, fertility preservation is the only reason Zachary has his two beautiful daughters today… but it also put an enormous financial hardship on his family.

Most people diagnosed with cancer in their fertile years are simply not told their treatments can make them sterile…

“I was lucky enough to have a doctor who did make me aware of what could happen to my fertility, and bank my sperm,” he says. “But it cost me $5,000 up front and $2,500 a year until my wife and I decided to have kids. Then it cost us significantly more for in vitro fertilization. So here me and my wife are, staring down a home equity loan to be a Mom and Dad. I love my kids–they’re healthy and beautiful and we got lucky–but is it okay that we had to effectively buy our children because cancer took them away from me? That insurance doesn’t cover this is a burden on the economy.”

Among other things, Stupid Cancer exists to help try to ameliorate some of that hardship for other would-be moms or dads with cancer. To give them the right to change their mind about if they want to have kids down the road. And, of course, to make sure that they have the resources they need to survive. Because if you get cancer in your twenties? “It’s really going to suck,” Zachary says. “But we can help it suck less.”

You can find out more information about Stupid Cancer here.