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Breaking Down Barriers
Tula Goenka, professor of television, radio and film in the Newhouse School, is the producer and director of “TitBits: Breast Cancer Stories,” an original documentary theater piece that will have a cold reading in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium of Newhouse 3 on Saturday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 10, at 2 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
Goenka, herself a breast cancer survivor, has dedicated the last decade to sharing her story and the stories of other breast cancer survivors to break down barriers between public perception and their personal experiences.
Below, she shares her experiences and why this work—and advocacy—is so important.
In 2010, you were one of the first three subjects photographed for “Look Now: Facing Breast Cancer,” a photographic exhibition meant to break down barriers. What did you hope to—and what did you—accomplish with this exhibition?
My aim has always been to put a face on breast cancer and to empower the participants and the viewers by juxtaposing the public persona with the private struggles. When someone looks at me or any another survivor, they have no idea that what we have been through. The proof-of-concept launch was extremely helpful in setting everything up and moving forward. It’s just hard to believe it has taken me all these years to get from there to where we are today. But I persisted.
You relaunched “Look Now” last fall as a public photographic exhibition and multimedia installation focusing on the personal stories of 44 survivors from Central New York. Featuring both clothed photographic portraits and images of bare chests, it was a powerful statement on the physical and emotional effects of breast cancer. What was the reaction to the exhibition, both from survivors and from the public?
I will never forget the opening night of “Look Now” at the Point of Contact Gallery in October 2018. I was relieved that everything finally came together thanks to careful planning and collaboration—especially with Sara Felice, director of Point of Contact and our curator—because it was a very interactive show with several different elements. Many of the participants spoke and shared their stories, although they had never spoken in public before. Nearly 600 people visited the gallery in the three weeks that the show was up, and many left heartfelt messages and tributes on the pink wall that we had set up instead of a sign-in notebook. It was always Dean [Lorraine] Branham’s wish that “Look Now” be displayed at Newhouse, and although she’s not here to see it, I am happy that some elements of the show will be on view outside the Herg during the “TitBits” reading.
Please tell us about the upcoming reading of “TitBits: Breast Cancer Stories” (written by alumna Nancy Keefe Rhodes G’89, G’06, with Syracuse Stage Associate Director Kyle Bass).
Cancer doesn’t happen to an individual. It happens to a family and a community. “TitBits” focuses on the stories behind breast cancer from the perspectives of the patient, survivor, caregiver, medical practitioner and advocate. Nancy and I interviewed eight people and edited their stories into an interwoven narrative with Kyle’s help and expertise. Four of our storytellers were also in the “Look Now” exhibition, and they are thrilled to continue sharing their experiences with the world at large.
What future projects do you have planned to continue your breast cancer education and advocacy?
Thanks to [Falk College] Dean Diane Murphy, I am partnering with several departments at Falk College to expand the project into realms of public health, nutrition, therapy, social work and more. People have to realize that it is more than pink ribbons, fundraising walks and awareness. Many women and men survive due to early detection and advances in treatment, but nearly 116 people die from it every day in the United States. The potential is endless because breast cancer touches all of us in some way or another. The “Look Now” project will soon include a new media site featuring an interactive documentary, images of survivors, resources for support and oral histories of project participants.