John Kaplan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, shares his journey with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and how producing Not As I Pictured: A Pulitzer Prize-winning Photographer's Journey Through Lymphoma helped him through it.
As a well-known photojournalist, I was used to documenting life's challenges and even the worst that life could offer a human being. In my more than 25-year career, I had covered revolution in the Philippines, the worst tornadoes to hit the U.S. in a century and many other devastating circumstances.
Journalists who cover such real-life drama can fall into an easy trap of believing we are invincible, that the life challenges faced by our subjects will not happen to us. Of course that is not true, but even at age 48, I had never truly faced my own vulnerability.
I had rarely been ill, so when a routine CT scan revealed a kidney tumor and an eventual rare diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma growing inside me, picking up my cameras was the last thing on my mind. But, initially as a way to cope with my fear, I began photographing and shooting video of myself through the treatment process. It was a distraction from the tough realities I faced. I soon realized that if I was able to go into remission - and I hoped and prayed that I would - I knew our family's story could lend hope and courage to others facing a cancer diagnosis.
The result is Not As I Pictured, a 54-minute feature-length documentary film. Despite the serious topic, Not As I Pictured is easy to watch, and even humorous at times. Universally, cancer patients and their families tell us they feel better after watching it.
I am now happily in remission. As a newly diagnosed patient, I learned that you have to find strength you never knew you had and somehow forge a positive attitude. In my opinion, you need science, of course, but you also need a strong belief system. For many of us, that centers around family and faith.
With today's tremendous advances in cancer research and treatment, you have to believe you can beat it. It's not the statistics that are most important. It's your will, your belief and your attitude. Simple joys suddenly mean everything.
With the goal of giving away 10,000 free copies of Not As I Pictured for personal use to anyone touched by cancer (including medical professionals), I hope to share the message that so many cancers today, including some lymphomas, are beginning to be treated as a chronic illness, rather than a death sentence as in years gone by.
When suddenly faced with a life-threatening illness, I had no idea that so many positive things could come forth from such devastating news. This has been at the core of my motivation to make the film. Many cancers today are not only treatable, they are beatable. During my treatment, we received so much unexpected help along the way, often from strangers. By giving away Not As I Pictured, I'm determined to give some of that back. The film is for patients, their caregivers and survivors, but importantly, also for the medical community, too.
As a professor at the University of Florida, I knew that for oncology professionals to embrace our humanitarian goals for the film, before releasing it, we first needed to do extensive focus group testing with oncologists, medical students, patients, caregivers and survivors. The result has been universal, enthusiastic support. Hospitals, medical practices and survivorship programs across the country are already using Not As I Pictured in professional use to help their patients and clients as well.
For medical humanities education, the film is generating tremendous interest as a teaching tool to impart a concept of growing importance, Humanism in Medicine. The movement seeks to understand the patient as a person, focusing on individual values, goals and preferences with respect to clinical decisions.
We have also had simply amazing support within the music community. Well-known musicians have donated music for the film including Michael Stipe and R.E.M., Chris Martin of Coldplay, David Bowie, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, Justin Timberlake, Pantera and the Cowboy Junkies.
Having judged more than 200 competitions, including the Pulitzer, I know what a cliché many cancer stories can be. But, when you get cancer, you don't feel like a cliché, you just pray you can beat it. Thus, Not As I Pictured does indeed confront the cliché, and hopefully takes the film to a meaningful level for viewers.
As my oncologist, Dr. James Lynch of Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida says, 'with some cancers you never know.' I don't spend time dwelling on that. I'm just glad I'm here for my family, here for my students and know the Not As I Pictured project will truly help other people face the challenges of a cancer diagnosis.
From the moment I learned it was cancer and had to wrestle with all of the emotions that come with that sinister word, this thought came to me. I repeat it out loud to myself each day:
'Every day is a blessing. Every day is a gift."
Visit NotAsIPictured.org to view the two-minute film trailer, order a free copy for personal use or inquire about having John to speak at community events. At screening events, community-wide cancer-coping roundtable discussions are often held following the film, featuring oncologists, survivorship experts and survivors. To join the online conversation about the film, visit facebook.com/NotAsIPictured.