Film studies major Zachary Valenti ’12 understands how cancer can devastate a family. The disease claimed two grandparents – his father’s mother and mother’s father – as well as a stepfather. As an adolescent, Valenti was already aware of the risks of male breast cancer. He suffered from gynocomastia, the abnormal development of breast tissue in men.
For the past three months, Valenti has combined his life experiences and film studies skills for a project that raises breast cancer awareness in the local community.
Valenti is creating a documentary featuring eight female breast cancer survivors for the Middlesex Hospital Comprehensive Breast Center and the Center for Survivorship’s “Project Pink” event on April 14. Project Pink is a makeover and fashion show event to help breast cancer survivors feel “as beautiful on the outside as they are on the inside.”
The volunteer project required Valenti to interview, film and edit the women’s stories.
“I’ve never been so conscious of my gender as I have talking to these women about their experiences with breast cancer,” Valenti says. “I got the impression it is not a typical thing for women to discuss the intimate details of their journeys with guys, let alone random 20-year-old ones, but they did.”
The survivors’ experiences were wide-ranging, from a simple, one-time surgery to chemotherapy nightmares, though “everyone agrees the best shot at survival is early detection. While you are technically a cancer survivor from the minute you’re diagnosed, it’s easy to forget how many people don’t survive their cancer, interviewing successfully treated women exclusively.”
Each interview spans 30 to 60 minutes in length, and Valenti is in the process of editing the documentary down to a 10-15 minute show. His friend, Adrian Rothschild ’12, is helping with the interviews and editing.
“I have a lot of footage to work with,” Valenti says. “What is or isn’t important is determined by the relationships between the different women and their stories, cutting away unnecessary frames with each viewing. The trick is going to be leaving enough time to get super familiar with the footage and commit to one aspect to really focus on.”
Valenti says that he and his peers do not typically think of cancer as a young person’s disease. One of the women featured in the documentary was diagnosed in her 20s.
“Talking with these survivors has been an incredible experience for me,” he says. “Hearing about their lives and learning what’s essential to prevention is inspiring and informative. People in their 20s are not too young to start getting screened and breast cancer can affect men, too.”
Sarah Atwell, administrative assistant in the Chemistry Department, is one of the women featured in the film. In January 2010, she was diagnosed with cancer. Six months later, on her 27th birthday, she completed a chemotherapy program and was deemed a survivor.
Sharing her story with Valenti came easily.
“Since Zach and I shared a Wes connection, speaking about my cancer wasn’t awkward at all. He immediately put me at ease,” she recalls. “Just like most of the Wes students I come in contact with, he was very friendly and he was of course very professional.”
Valenti, who was enrolled in FILM 450: Sight and Sound Workshop last fall, was searching for film production experience when the Middlesex
Hospital documentary opportunity came along. Valenti applied and was selected to produce the documentary last January.
The women in “Project Pink” are all breast cancer survivors who were nominated to win a free makeover. The evening will showcase these survivors in a fun-filled fashion show that celebrates their stories. Valenti’s documentary will be shown prior to the fashion show.
“After hearing about the horrors and triumphs of the women from Project Pink, the stresses of college life don’t seem all that stressful,” Valenti says. “Listening to their stories and newfound points-of-view, I’m much more attentive to how I spend my time.”