Carolyn Taylor wasn’t even sure she had come to the right place, as she walked into Vietnam National Cancer Hospital in November.
The place was in chaos, with people propped against walls, some sleeping, many in the late stages of cancer.
When Taylor, a business owner from upstate New York and a cancer survivor herself, entered the hospital in the Vietnamese capital, her aim merely was to photograph the people in a cancer-support group. She was in Vietnam as part of a round-the-world trip made possible by winning tickets from a British Airways contest.
But her trip quickly became more than the photographs from that Hanoi hospital, as well as the photos from hospitals and cancer centers in 11 other countries she visited. Instead, it became about helping the people she met along the way. And it led her to start Global Focus on Cancer, a non-profit organization that works to create cancer support and awareness programs around the world.
Her journey has now taken Taylor – by trade, a commercial food and product photographer – from South Salem, N.Y., around the world and back again.
As a commercial photographer, Taylor had plenty of experience taking photographs, but she admitted the prospect of trying to convey the story of such a life-changing disease was daunting.
“I can make a roast chicken look delicious, but what am I going to do to help people with cancer?” she said.
Doctors had diagnosed Taylor with ovarian and endometrial cancer in 2006. They caught it so early that two weeks after her diagnosis, Taylor was cancer-free and back to work. But she knew she’d had a lucky escape; she wanted to help others not so lucky.
Her tickets to Vietnam and 11 other countries came from British Airways, which sponsored an essay competition in 2010. Taylor described how 10 free flights could change the face of her commercial photography business. “I felt completely unqualified to do it,” she said. “I was petrified when I got the phone call from BA to say I’d won.”
The first thing she did was connect with other organizations that were working internationally to improve cancer awareness and treatment, including the International Cancer Control in Geneva and the American Cancer Society. Then, in just one year, she traveled to India, Nepal, Israel, Jordan, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Kenya, Tanzania, Italy and Switzerland.
It was seeing the difference between Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, where she was treated, and the hospitals to which she traveled in less-developed countries that was emotionally jarring.
“It was painful for me to see people in those conditions, knowing how sick they were,” she said.
In Kenya, Taylor met a woman who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had refused all treatment and was resigned to death. But within 30 minutes, the woman was laughing and dancing around Taylor’s hotel room as Taylor handed her a mastectomy bra she had brought.
“Being able to do that for someone and to have such a major impact on them – that’s when I decided to take this further,” she said.
Of all her trips, the one that stuck with Taylor the most was to Vietnam. Since her first visit there in November 2011, Taylor has been back one other time and is planning another trip by the end of the year.
Visiting three of the country’s four cancer centers during her first visit, she saw low survival rates and overwhelmed facilities.
Can Tho Oncology Hospital in the city of Can Tho in western Vietnam was one such center. Taylor was shocked by what she saw: two and three patients sharing a bed, patients on the floor or on lawn chairs in the parking lot; no glass in the windows; no air conditioning in the rooms. And all of it in sweltering humidity.
Between 70 percent and 80 percent of Vietnamese patients who arrive at one of the country’s four cancer clinics are already in later stages of cancer, stage II or III, Linh Nguyen, head of oncology at Vietnam National Cancer Hospital, said in an interview. That significantly reduces their chances of survival.
“So many times, I was the first cancer survivor people had ever met,” Taylor said. “People sometimes don’t think it’s even possible.”
Part of the reason patients arrive in such advanced stages is lack of awareness, Taylor said. And many come to the cancer centers through a local health care system that struggles to diagnose them.
Unlike most developing countries, Vietnam has seen a huge improvement in the quality of its general hospitals in recent years. But there is still a lack of awareness when it comes to cancer treatment, Taylor said.
“Vietnam is right on the edge of changing,” Taylor said.
More and more Vietnamese have health insurance, and physicians have greater access to the Internet and international partners who can show them international health care standards, according to Eric Krakauer, an assistant professor and director of international programs at the Center for Palliative Care at Harvard Medical School. He is currently traveling in Vietnam.
“These developments will make possible better cancer prevention, early detection and palliative care,” he said.
Before Vietnam can take this step forward, Taylor and other cancer advocates want to work to reduce the stigma surrounding cancer in Vietnam. Taylor’s hope is that Global Focus on Cancer will help do that.
The group has an advisory board of doctors and cancer advocates she met during her trip; it also includes Taylor’s doctor, Ann Marie Beddoe of Mount Sinai.
During this year’s Vietnam visit, Taylor partnered with the Breast Cancer Club of Hanoi, established four years ago by Nguyen. They have set up two support groups, one in Can Tho and the other in Ho Chi Minh City.
Before Taylor and Nguyen started these two support groups, the Breast Cancer Club was the only support group in all of Vietnam, they said.
The Can Tho Cancer Patient’s Club in Can Tho Oncology Hospital received government approval about a month ago, and 14 doctors have already joined.
Taylor, who turned 50 this month, has an intense dedication to her work in Vietnam, spending her time rushing between visits with doctors and support group leaders. Her camera is always with her, and she documents her trips with a fascination befitting her occupation and her personality.
Taylor is now at home in New York and is working with the complementary care department at Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale University Medical Center to develop a therapy protocol for cancer patients and their families.
Doctors at Smilow are creating proposals that focus on stress relief and counseling; Taylor will then bring them to doctors in Vietnam.
She’s also partnering with the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute in Delhi, India. She met Arvind Chaturvedi, director of the institute’s department of radiology, during her global photography trip. When she told him about the poor cancer treatment facilities in Vietnam, he offered to accept Vietnamese doctors to a four- to 12-week training program on Taylor’s recommendation.
“The public and patients need a lot of information and I thought that Global Focus on Cancer can do a good job,” Chaturvedi said in an email.
So far Taylor has recommended six doctors from Can Tho Oncology Hospital to receive one of the training programs.
She has launched her programs without official funding and while still holding a full-time job. Her last trip cost $5,000, donated from family and friends. To raise funds she plans to target Vietnamese expatriates living in the United States, as well as American companies in Vietnam.
California-based clothier Patagonia has already agreed to allow Taylor to hold cancer awareness workshops in its factories in Vietnam.
“The battle against cancer is universal,” she said. “Regardless of race, religion, nationality or economic status, we are all one in the fight against cancer.”