Rina posing as part of the exhibition
“I’m incredibly lucky to have such a huge team of people supporting me and keeping me alive. In the past it would only have been people like kings and queens who would have received this level of medical care.”
Rina, 52, from London is being treated for stage four breast cancer which has spread to her lungs, liver and ribs.
Following an initial diagnosis and surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy in 2009, her life returned to normal.
But in 2013 tests showed she had cancer in her hip and knee. She had further treatment, including hip replacement surgery, but in March was told the cancer had spread further.
A special team
“It was a very emotional time,” she said. “I have tears in my eyes just thinking about it. I wanted to take the cancer straight on, to take the fight straight on.”
It was at this time that Rina was inspired to begin work on a new creative project, by one of the team caring for her – Mark, a phlebotomist (phlebotomists take blood samples from patients).
“Mark had been off work for a few months because he had a new baby,” she told us.
“When he came back to out-patients everyone was excited to see him and hear all his news. It made me realise how important the team treating me are to me and how unusual and special they are.”
“I wanted to create a series of photographs that celebrated what they mean to me and their own individuality at the same time.”
Directing the photography for the exhibition, ‘The People Who Are Keeping Me Alive’ has taken six months, during which time Rina has also undergone chemotherapy at Charing Cross Hospital to manage the cancer on her liver and lungs.
Thanks to incredible advances in cancer research, more and more people like Rina are living with cancer for longer. Figures we published in April showed that half of people in England and Wales now being diagnosed with cancer will survive at least a decade – double the rate in the early 1970s.
“More and more of us are living with cancer for longer, looking healthy to the world, focusing on our quality of life, and managing quite well,” says Rina. “Today, cancer no longer means death. Not only are many of us with cancer fully living our lives, often we live them more passionately knowing that our time is limited.”
“Look at me, I’m a stage four cancer patient. I’m living with cancer, cancer is my new normal. I don’t know how long I have to live. All I can count on is being here at this minute and making the most of it.”
A life of its own
The 22 giant photographs in the exhibition depict the collective force of people caring for Rina, including her oncologist, GP, and chemotherapy nurse, as well as her acupuncturist and her mum.
Each individual has been captured with a prop that is personal to them, and shows the real person behind the vital role each one is playing in Rina’s care and support.
“We joke about it but I really believe that this is what is keeping me alive. It feels like the project has a life of its own.
“It’s been fantastic to work with such inspiring people and get to know them even better. It’s been a role reversal with the medical professionals – me telling them what to do for once instead of them bossing me around. Everyone who I’ve asked to be a part of it has agreed, and it has definitely bought us closer together.
“I also wanted to capture all the people around me who are my support network, so it also includes some of my friends and my mum who I persuaded to fly over from India to be photographed.
“It’s the project that is keeping me alive – I have seen the good side of people by working on it.”
A brief moment in the spotlight
Kelly Gleason, Cancer Research UK Senior Nurse at Imperial College London, has worked closely with Rina throughout the project’s development and has helped make it a reality.
“When we set up our seminar room as a photo studio and people started coming in for their portraits, Rina forgot she had cancer, she was truly in the moment and fully present, immersed in her dream of making this project a reality,” said Kelly.
“It was also very beautiful that the nurses and support staff were photographed and had a brief moment being in the spotlight. Their work is important but often goes unrecognised. It was very touching to watch the ‘unsung heroes’ be photographed and acknowledged for their contributions.
“I feel the project will have a positive impact on many people whose lives have been touched by cancer.”
Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon Rob Pollock, who performed hip replacement surgery on Rina when the cancer spread to her hip bone, is also featured in the exhibition.
“I ride a motorbike for fun rather than commute,” he said. “It’s something I do in my spare time and gives me a release from the pressures of work. Rina once asked me about my weekend and I think she was surprised to hear that I’d spent it riding through France, across the Pyrenees and into Spain. Her image of me as a serious surgeon was turned upside down.
“Rina is such an inspiring person and I loved her idea of showing the non-serious side of us. It seemed like such an obvious thing to do. It’s a huge honour to be picked to be a part of her team.”
Rina said: “I hope people leave with the feeling that we are all connected to one another and we need each other to stay alive. We all matter to each other.
“I hope this project shows that with one another’s help, beauty can come out of a situation when you are struggling against difficulty.”
Emily Attwood is a senior regional press officer at Cancer Research UK
- If you’ve been moved by Rina’s story please share your heroes and the people who inspire you using the twitter hashtag #RinasHeroes.
The People Who Are Keeping Me Alive is on display at South Kensington Campus, Imperial College London, Exhibition Road, London from Monday 17th November to Sunday 30th November. Entry is free.