In Fun with Cancer Patients, created by New Yorker Brian Lobel, young people talk and think about the many ways the disease – and its treatment – has affected them
It was walking down the hospital corridor with a bucket of his urine in tow that inspired Brian Lobel to use art to document the lesser-known aspects of cancer treatment.
Lobel, from upstate New York, was 20 when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. As part of his treatment, he had to collect his urine so that doctors could keep track of how he was doing.
“It was pretty demoralising to walk around with a biohazard,” he remembers. “As that gross and horrible thing was happening, I thought: ‘You know, I would love to walk through this hospital accompanied by a musical number or something that would make everyone in this room feel as uncomfortable as I do.'”
Lobel, now 31 and cancer-free for 12 years, lives in London and works as a performance artist. He has drawn on his own experience of cancer treatment as a young adult to help carry out a series of “actions” with teenage cancer patients in Birmingham.
His latest project, Fun with Cancer Patients, aims to encourage people to talk and think about the details of cancer. He says: “I would like people to grow in their intellectual capacity around cancer, to think critically and to know more about what actually happens. Cancer is an emotional term and when people hear it, they shut down and don’t think about it. They just know it’s terrible.
“Very few people know what radiation or chemotherapy look like. People don’t know how they’re delivered, or what these things mean. They don’t know about the psycho-social realities of cancer or what happens day to day.”
Fun with Cancer Patients, on show now at mac Birmingham, documents 10 areas of cancer treatment including food intake and appetite, the relationship between the starer and the person being looked at, the questions that cancer patients are always asked, and the sounds associated with treatment.
The exhibition features Instagrammed pictures of recipes made to order in hospital, which look at the ever-changing tastes and desires of those undergoing chemotherapy. Also on display is a video, with one cancer patient responding to the common questions he was constantly asked about his treatment. Another piece comprises 120 pages of Closer magazine with PhotoShopped pictures of Hickman lines coming out of celebrities’ chests.
Lobel created Fun with Cancer Patients “to give a space for honest reflection, first for patients, then for medical staff, about the effects and realities of this illness. This exhibition is an attempt to open that reflection up to the public, all of whom come with their own cancer story.”
As for Lobel, his “life-altering” experience with cancer has left an indelible mark but it didn’t stop him from reframing his life. When he was diagnosed, he was studying political science at the University of Michigan. He dropped out for treatment and, when he was given the all-clear, returned to study performance and social identity, which shaped his career path.
He says: “The moment you’re diagnosed, you become a different person. You should stop thinking about going back to normal. Mourn the person you were, and make whoever you are now a fantastic person.”
After cancer, he says: “You don’t have bodily security, your family will always treat you a little bit different. You will have scars on your body that you will have to explain. As a cancer patient, you learn how to introduce the information to the public because you know you’re holding onto something big and powerful.” He hopes that Fun with Cancer Patients will help with this and develop “awareness of the specificity of the young adult cancer experience”.
He believes that young cancer patients have different needs from other cancer patients. He cites one example for possible change: “One thing we can do is change food times. Teenagers do not want breakfast at 7am.” He also suggests cooking food that will appeal to teenagers.
“There are a lot of specific things that we can raise awareness of. These are the tweaks, the edges of treatments that can make major differences. I think people in hospitals are being receptive to it. But changes are slow.”
Fun with Cancer Patients is on show at the mac in Birmingham until 6 October 2013