For Mary Ann Wasil Nilan, May 5 is “Chemo de Mayo.” She invented the name to honor of the start of her breast cancer chemotherapy in 2004.
During her treatment and recovery, the former actress, model and police officer worked with New Haven-based photographer Christopher Capozziello to produce a collection of photographs that would bring a face to the disease. A selection of these photographs now hang in the Davenport College art gallery, where Nilan and Capozziello spoke about their project before a group of about 20 students in a Thursday night event sponsored by student group Colleges Against Cancer.
Taken between August 2004 and January 2006, the black-and-white photographs in the collection — titled “A Diary of Healing” — document Nilan’s time at home, at hospital visits, in chemotherapy, at her mastectomy and in recovery after her surgery.
Nilan said she was initially reluctant to let Capozziello follow her daily life when he suggested the project midway through her chemotherapy. But Nilan said she agreed when she realized it was an opportunity to help other patients come to terms with the disease. She added that when she was diagnosed, she could only find images of women’s bodies without faces. But all she wanted, she said, was to see a more human side of cancer that she could relate to.
“It was ridiculous. I wanted to see a life,” Nilan said. “I wanted to see someone with a face who thinks it’s okay to have cancer.”
Like many other cancer patients, Nilan had trouble accepting her diagnosis. She said she screamed so loudly in the shower that all her neighbors could hear.
But Nilan said she now embraces opportunities to help others prevent and fight cancer. In 2008, Nilan founded the Get in Touch Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching girls in grades five through 12 how to conduct breast exams.
“The foundation is my everything,” she said. “I’ve never been more alive. I’m kicking cancer’s ass.”
The photographs in the exhibit, a small selection of the more than 7000 images that Capozziello shot, were published in TIME Magazine in 2005. One photograph captured the moment Nilan saw her own breasts for the first time after her reconstructive surgery. In another, Capozziello’s hand steadies Nilan as she vomits.
Capozziello said he occasionally felt intrusive, but he said Nilan never backed away from the two-year project. During some weeks, he was with her every day.
“I saw moments that not even her closest friends saw,” he said.
Varoon Bashyakarla ’13, vice president of the Yale chapter of Colleges Against Cancer, said that he contacted Capozziello when he found out the gallery was available three weeks ago.
“I wanted the exhibit to feature and highlight all the ups and downs of cancer: the happy times, the laughs, the sad times and, quite frankly, the scary times,” Bashyakarla said. “I wanted the exhibit to convey all of that, and I didn’t want it to just be a happy, touchy-feely thing.”
Five students interviewed said they were struck by the intimacy of the photos.
Nelson Madubuonwu ’13 said he was moved by Nilan’s energy and concern for the health of other women.
The Yale chapter of Colleges Against Cancer also organizes Relay for Life in spring, among other events to raise awareness and money.