A year of cancer, one photo at a time: Former Hongkonger keeps picture diary of battle

Former Hong Kong resident Jennifer Glass took a photo of herself daily during a year-long battle with lung cancer

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2014, 9:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 April, 2014, 1:42pm

Jennifer Glass has always had an adventurous spirit.

In 1990, she left the United States and journeyed to Southeast Asia for several months of solo backpacking. Then, she migrated to rural Japan to teach English for two years before taking on three years of public relations work in Hong Kong – a city she still describes as “a place where anything could happen and [everything] was possible”.

Eventually, Glass returned to the United States and settled in California. In late 2012, she was married to Harlan Seymour.

And then, on January 5, 2013, only four months after her marriage, 50-year-old Glass was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“My particular type of cancer is non-small cell lung cancer, stage IIIB,” Glass says. “The American Cancer Society estimates a five-year survival rate of five per cent.” 

The day of her diagnosis, Glass asked her husband Harlan to document her cancer story by taking a photograph of her every single day for the next year.

“I didn’t know what I would do with the images, but I knew that I wanted to chronicle what was about to happen to my body,” Glass says.

Now, over one year later, Glass has risen above the weight of cancer to become an inspirational figure. Currently the writer of a column about her experiences published on and in The Huffington Post, Glass also became a viral internet star after she combined the photographs her husband had taken into a single video for Youtube.

Juxtaposed with the song I Seem To Have Cancer Today, sung by Glass’ brother Lawrence, the video paints an image of a long year of treatment, filled with chemotherapy, radiation therapy and numerous, subtle changes in Glass’ features – including a severe rash that broke out across her face as the side effect of a chemotherapy drug.

Watch: A photo a day - One year with lung cancer

Glass’ video has received over 229,000 likes since she posted it on Youtube and inspired kind words from other cancer patients, many of whom have praised her for “putting a human face on a frightening subject”.

“I never had any idea that my story would strike such a chord with people, but it seems to resonate with anyone affected by illness or adversity - which is everyone,” Glass says. 

After a long year, Glass’ cancer has finally stopped growing, although the 50-year-old must still undergo a CT scan every few months, and lives “quarter to quarter waiting for those results”.

Despite the uncertainties of a life post-chemotherapy, Glass has thrown herself full-force into her new role as a columnist and has also made numerous public talks on how her cancer experience has shaped her life.

More than anything else, she cites the support she has received from her husband and close friends as a major boost in helping her overcome the devestating fright that comes with cancer.

Watch: Jennifer Glass on how to "fear less"

“The most debilitating part of a serious illness is often the fear that comes with it,” Glass says. "No one is fearless, but we can all find ways to fear less, enabling us to think more clearly, make better decisions, and feel that we have some control at a time when life seems to have gone completely off the rails.

"Do what you’re good at, and let people help you in the other areas. I’m a very organized person and for me it is comforting to create lists and spreadsheets to manage the flood of cancer-related information.  I am not, however, anyone’s idea of a domestic goddess, so I gratefully accepted when friends offered to arrange meals [for me] during the months of my chemo and radiation. By relinquishing responsibility for some activities I was able to focus on dealing with my cancer without feeling overwhelmed."

And while Glass’ life may have been temporarily burdened by cancer, her adventurous spirit, it seems, still lives on.

“I have good days and bad days, but overall I appreciate the time that I have while I still feel well,” Glass says. “For now…my cancer seems to be contained and I am working to manage it so that it does not grow or spread again. I am cautiously optimistic about the future.”