When Michelle Audoin was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, she quickly became frustrated with how poorly women of colour were represented in cancer communities.
“The lack of representation of BI & POC bodies in the clinical cancer setting feeds a false narrative that we don’t get cancer, that we shouldn’t talk about it, that images of our bodies and scars don’t matter, or that earlier detection and screening guidelines don’t matter,” writes Audoin.
These narratives can be deadly for women of colour, leading to cultural stigmas and barriers to screenings, treatments and surgeries. The American Cancer Society found that Black women with breast cancer have a death rate 40 percent higher than white women. In Canada, a study from the University of Toronto found a significant lack of healthcare data specific to Black Canadian women, even though Black Canadians are the third largest minority group in the country, leading to possible under-screening for breast and cervical cancers.
Audoin brought her concerns to Rethink Breast Cancer, and in 2020 she led the launch of Uncovered: A Breast Recognition Project, a resource that would finally spotlight the experiences of BIPOC women with breast cancer.
Toronto-based director Chrris Lowe joined the project in 2021, directing Portrait of Illumination, a series of intimate videos with four Black and Indigenous women sharing their breast cancer stories. As a Black, queer director, Lowe’s work has consistently focused on the varied experiences of BIPOC folks, so she felt compelled to contribute to a project seeking to amplify voices that often aren’t heard in cancer spaces.
“Being a director allowed me to explore a lot of the things I was interested in, people, emotions, healing, art, creativity,” says Lowe. “Projects like these are so important for me to take on because they provide an opportunity to showcase underrepresented communities in ways that we rarely see.”
Showing scars, smiles and everything in between, the videos are unfiltered and honest—the women open up and share hard truths about body image, mental health, and feeling pressure to hide their cancer diagnoses.
All of the women in the videos express how they didn’t feel seen or heard while seeking cancer treatment. One subject in the film shares about when, immediately after diagnosis, she was handed brochures about resources and support groups and didn’t see herself represented in any of the materials. “None of it looks like me. None of it looks like what I’m about to go through.”
“I was able to spotlight Black and Indigenous women within the breast cancer community and provide a beautiful visual platform to hear their stories,” says Lowe. “This improves both the understanding of their experiences and general representation, ultimately bettering the medical care BI & POC women receive within the breast cancer community.”
Another woman shared about constantly having to advocate for herself to be understood and seen by her medical team. “As an Indigenous woman, going through the Western medical system was incredibly challenging. It’s not a system that is built for me to feel comfortable.”
Through powerful imagery and vulnerable storytelling, the women in these videos were able to share their stories. It’s campaigns like these that inspire conversations about how medical spaces can be more inclusive and supportive of women, especially at a challenging time of their lives. “Portrait of Illumination was such a beautiful opportunity to merge an important mission with art, interviewing and community,” says Lowe, who is grateful to have worked on such an important project. All of the interviews Lowe conducted are available to watch here.
Art is a persuasive agent of change. Rethink is continuing to speak with Black, Indigenous and People of Colour about their experiences with breast cancer and navigating the healthcare system, uncovering their realities and sharing them, and advocating for change. Want to share your own story of Uncovered? Connect with Rethink here, or learn more at their upcoming event Best Health for Black Women.