Photographing His Own Cancer Treatment: ‘A Hell I Wasn’t Ready For’

 In Cancer, Cannabis Education, Health, Politics, Research
Mark Richards, the photographer, during treatment.CreditMark Richards

By Remy Tumin July 17, 2018

Mark Richards thought he was done being a photojournalist. Then he had a rare cancer diagnosed. He had devoted his life to documenting the world, but now he wanted to tell his own story.

“The project was thrust upon me,” Mr. Richards, 63, said from his home in San Rafael, Calif.

In a series of photographs called “Darkness at Noon: My Time in Radiation,” Mr. Richards chronicles his time in treatment with the raw intimacy of personal perspective. His photographs range from being strapped down in a CT scanner to self-portraits showing the emotional toll of radiation.

During treatment, taking a shower could leave Mr. Richards without any energy. Sometimes he would have to crawl back to bed to recover.CreditMark Richards
Bottles of contrast material, which is injected in patients and helps to improve pictures produced by CT scans of the insides of their bodies.CreditMark Richards
Mr. Richards walking out the door with his radiation mask after his last treatment.CreditMark Richards

Last year, Mr. Richards began feeling excruciating pain, the kind “that made you want to kill yourself,” he recalled. The pain affected his trigeminal nerve, which is the largest nerve that runs through the face and is responsible for biting and chewing. It also affects the tongue and taste buds.

Doctors struggled to figure out what was causing the pain. Mr. Richards’s case eventually went before a tumor board, where various doctors assessed the symptoms and scans. It was discovered that he had salivary cancer.

The cancer was growing up along his nerve.

“And the other end of that nerve is your brain,” Mr. Richards said. “It’s like the 1 percent of the 1 percent.”

After multiple surgeries, Mr. Richards lost some ability to taste and fully swallow. These days when he takes his medication, he has to take extra care to focus or the pills will get stuck under his tongue.

“But that wasn’t the worst part,” he said. “I thought it was.”

The machine used in the first M.R.I. scan that Mr. Richards underwent, when still trying to determine the cause of his pain.CreditMark Richards
A CT scan that was eventually used to guide doctors to determine where to position the radiation for Mr. Richards and how much to use.CreditMark Richards
Mr. Richards wearing a radiation mask during treatment.CreditMark Richards

In March, Mr. Richards started radiation.

“That was a hell I wasn’t ready for,” he said. The pain was so bad, he became suicidal.

Mr. Richards endured 33 sessions, five days a week straight through the treatment. The effects of radiation continued after the treatment was complete. He said it took him another two weeks to start to return to some sort of normalcy.

“It just took everything out of me,” Mr. Richards said, pausing to let some tears pass. “Even now I have to lay in bed a lot. It’s an effect that takes every part of you and reduces you.”

Photography had been a steadying force for Mr. Richards for decades, so he turned to it as a “coping mechanism,” he said. While in treatment, he had a split vision of what his therapy might look like to the outside world — a world of machines, drips, M.R.I.’s. “Ordinary,” he said.

“But that ain’t the way it felt,” he said. He picked up his iPhone and started taking pictures. “I thought, you have this iPhone, this tool, it seems so obvious to me.”

He used the Hipstamatic app to filter through his emotions.

Mr. Richards relied on opioids for pain relief from his treatment before turning to marijuana, which was far more effective. Before his treatment he had almost never smoked a joint.CreditMark Richards
Mr. Richards’s weight dropped from 215 pounds before his first surgery to as low as 187. A trail runner for 25 years, he lost a lot of muscle and currently weighs 192 pounds.CreditMark Richards
Radiation eventually burned Mr. Richards’s neck, another constant pain.CreditMarks Richards

“I pulled them back and gave them the mood I wanted: This is what I feel, an otherworldliness,” he said. “I’m trying to transmit emotion rather than reality.”

Mr. Richards took most of the photographs himself on his phone. Sometimes he employed the help of the nurses around him, instructing them to take a photograph from different angles.

A Vietnam veteran, Mr. Richards had focused mostly on photojournalism throughout his career, photographing for Time and Newsweek. He started out as a war photographer in Afghanistan in 1983.

But this assignment was personal.

“This is a more pure form in a way, it’s not that much different than what I did,” he said.

For now, every day is different. Some days he has more energy than others. And last week, he had another round of scans to see if the radiation had done the trick. But before that, it was one day at a time.

“I go through periods of energy and non-energy,” he said. “I’m going to try to run today, so I’m focused.”

Mr. Richards is hoping this series of photographs is a one-time thing.

“I’m not a planning guy, this was an intuitive, emotional time,” he said. “If it comes back, I’ll do it again. I hope this is a little phase in my life.”

Mr. Richards wearing his radiation mask, which is made of a white plastic mesh. Nurses fit the mask over the face and shoulders and snap it down to restrain the head so the radiation targets the same spot. Mr. Richards, who had radiation five days a week for seven weeks, came to consider the mask a part of himself.CreditMarks Richards
Mr. Richards’s stitches after his second surgery, which took 12 hours. Much of the procedure was done through his nose to his trigeminal nerve, which is behind the cheek. The area they were trying to get to was near his brain.CreditMarks Richards
A room where Mr. Richards waited for a PET scan, which are used to reveal where cancer is located in the body.CreditMark Richards
Mr. Richards today. He is still recovering, but is moving on.CreditMark Richards

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Originally posted to the NYTimes.

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