Letting Cancer Become a ‘New Beginning’

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Bill Aron’s book, New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors, features stories about 120 resilient individuals ranging in ages and diagnoses, as well as their spouses, families and friends, as they talk about their experiences battling cancer.

“I chose to thrive rather than just survive. That is the choice.”
These are the words of Aurora Avila, one of 120 people featured in Bill Aron’s book, New Beginnings: The Triumphs of 120 Cancer Survivors. 
Aron, a native Philadelphian who used to belong to Rodeph Shalom and now lives in Los Angeles, began taking portraits of cancer survivors in 2006; the final product was released in 2015.
He will speak at the Gershman Y on April 17 at 11 a.m.
The book features stories about 120 resilient individuals ranging in ages and diagnoses, as well as their spouses, families and friends, as they talk about their experiences battling cancer.
It began as a portrait photography project, but as Aron — a prostate cancer survivor himself — began meeting his subjects, he realized it was more than that.
“On the first couple people I tried this project out with — the first couple cancer survivors — I started talking to them and I taped them with my phone and eventually it became an interview,” Aron said. “Like a two-hour interview, which became very cathartic for both of us — they talked about their cancer, I talked about my cancer, we talked about what that meant in terms of the rest of our lives.
“So, I slowly developed that as the paradigm for how I would go about this project, and it just became clear that the interviews were an integral part of what I was doing.”
His subjects include people who might have name recognition for their professions or roles in the survivor community, such as Doug Ulman, the president and CEO of the LIVESTRONG Foundation; Rabbi David J. Wolpe, Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, who was named the most influential rabbi in America by Newsweek magazine; Coby Karl, who played for the L.A. Lakers; and Matthew Zachary, founder and CEO of Stupid Cancer, Inc.
But most stories are about people Aron met along the way or were recommended to him.
That includes the stories of Chelsea Kauffman, who is photographed with her best friends and twin sister — who had to cut her twin’s hair; of Anel Tellez, whose now-husband asked her out for their first date one month before her chemotherapy treatments ended so she would have “something to look forward to;” of Maneh Nazarian, who was seven when diagnosed and told her mother, “I may look ugly on the outside, but on the inside, Maneh is beautiful” — and then started singing “Don’t you wish your girlfriend was bald like me.”
A photographer since he got his first Brownie Hawkeye camera in Atlantic City at the age of 10, Aron spent time with each person and afterward asked how they wanted to construct the photo so it became something that represented them.
If they went to the beach often, Aron would pack up his equipment and drive to the beach for the photo. The two young women on the book’s cover were photographed holding hands and jumping off a fountain at the university where they met and became friends. After becoming friends, they realized they were both cancer survivors.
A difference with this project is that it is in color — atypical for Aron, who also published a book called Shalom, Y’all: Images of Jewish Life in the American South.
“Most of my work up to that point had been in black and white, but it had to be in color because it became clear that what I was discovering was another phase of cancer,” he said.
As one survivor he talked with put it, there is an “unacknowledged phase” of cancer.
“There’s diagnosis, then there’s treatment and during treatment, it’s very busy because you’re consulting with different doctors, getting second, third opinions, treatment appointments — sometimes every day if it involves radiation, sometimes once a week — and friends and family are calling you from all over the place wanting to know how you are,” he explained.
At some point, he continued, the doctor will tell you, “you’re good to go.” And whether it’s resolved or not, there is some kind of end point after the initial treatment concludes. At that point, it becomes very quiet and there is the expectation that life will go back to “normal.”
“The phone stops ringing, and even you kind of expect life to go back to normal — certainly friends and family do — but it just can’t,” he said.
After this phase, many survivors he spoke with started coming to terms with their new reality. Some even changed professions or altered their passions to fit their life.
Gayle Garner Roskies, an artist who made drawings of her cancer as she went through treatment, began painting in brighter colors. Her portrait in New Beginnings is of her painting with vibrant blues and oranges.
“At first, the art was red and angry. Now I paint in bright colors and live my life that way, too,” she said.
That confrontation with mortality was something Aron certainly faced as well. His first diagnosis was in 1993, he relapsed a year later and fell out of remission in 2004.
“Different experiences shape us,” Aron said, “and some of the experiences involve — if you want a quote from the Bible — they force us to number our days. And once that happens, then your life is different from what’s preceded it. I found when I got married, my life became very different. This is different in a different way.”
Working on this project and talking with these individuals affected him as much as it did the people he photographed.
As he looked back to his own experience, he thought about how cancer had affected him, which he says changed his mind about a lot.
“I became a better husband, better father,” he reflected, “but since I started talking to these people, and when they started to articulate how their lives have changed, and they kind of became my teachers.”
He cited one example in the story of Robert Stepp, who was three when he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. Stepp’s family was not religious, and his mother found him one day talking to God, which scared her. He asked to be taken to the hospital chapel one day to pray to take the cancer away. Afterward, his parents both became Sunday school teachers.
“The story made me look at being Jewish in  a whole different light,” Aron said.
The book’s final version pleased Aron.
“It turned out to be the kind of book I wish had existed when I was diagnosed — a book with enough stories so that I would find something to identify with,” he said.
Contact: [email protected]jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740

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