Photographer Wins Pulitzer for Cancer Story
This year Renee C. Byer, a senior photojournalist for the Sacramento Bee, won a Pulitzer Prize for her photo essay, "A Mother's Journey," capturing the story of single mother Cyndie French and her son Derek Madsen's fatal battle with cancer in 2006. The photos can be viewed at http://www.pulitzer.org/year/2007/feature-photography/works/.
For Byer, this was an important story to tell. "Billions of dollars go to cancer research, but very little is available to help families struggling emotionally and financially throughout this medical crisis. I wanted to bring awareness to that fact and also compassion to other families struggling in the same situation."
Byer first met French while on a photo assignment at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on May 7, 2005. French's 11-year-old son Derek had neuroblastoma, a cancer that arises in immature nerve cells and primarily affects infants and children. French described her emotional and financial hardships and invited Byer to meet her son.
Initially, Byer wasn't sure she could photograph their story. "As a journalist, you have to let scenes unfold, especially in this kind of situation where lifeline decision making is taking place. You don't want to interrupt the family's normal pattern of life or alter their state of mind." She was uncertain whether Derek would let his guard down enough for her to do this, and she was afraid of how emotionally invested she might become in their lives.
"It's a tough balancing act between stepping back and being compassionate as a person. But what this family endured is tenfold what I endured, so that is how I could document their story."
For a year, Byer captured their visits to the doctor, grocery store trips, and moments of joy, anger, and sorrow. Now Byer hopes that the photos and Pulitzer Prize will draw attention to Derek's Wish, a foundation that French has started in memory of her son to assist other families who are going through treatment for terminal cancer.
The Pulitzer Prizes were created by journalist and newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer through an endowment to Columbia University. Pulitzer regarded journalism as a noble and important profession for its influence on the "minds and morals of the people."
The awards are now funded through a foundation and are awarded each April by the president of Columbia University for outstanding achievements in journalism, upon the recommendations of a voting board. Submissions total more than 2,400 each year for 21 categories. The winners receive $10,000 at a ceremony in May.
Information about financial resources for cancer patients can be found at http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Support/financial-resources. NCI's Office of Cancer Survivorship has additional information for cancer patients and their families.