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Undergraduate Researchers

Michelle Wilson, Visual Arts

Male Breast Cancer: Three Portraits

Faculty Mentor: Ms. Calla Thompson

In 2008, according to the National Cancer Institute, men accounted for one percent or 1,990 of all breast cancer cases in the United States. My research will combine documentary photographs of three male breast cancer survivors with their written narratives as a way to record the physical and psychological effects of male breast cancer. Because of the relative rarity of breast cancer in men, some men prolong discussing changes in their bodies with a physician. My research will, through photographic documentation and intimate dialogue with survivors, examine the stigma of male breast cancer, extending the current dialogue that represents it as a female disease. I will produce portraits of shirtless male breast cancer survivors post-surgery, as well as photographs of the subjects involved their daily lives. In addition to acting as a record of three men’s struggles and triumphs, the images combined with written testimonies will convey the importance of awareness and early detection as critical to long term survival.

How did you find your mentor for this project?

Professor Calla Thompson suggested I look into the URA to further a project I began in her Documentary Photography class. It only seemed appropriate that I ask Professor Thompson to be my mentor.

How did you know this was the project you wanted to do?

The project is documenting male breast cancer survivors in an effort to bring awareness. My reasons for doing so are twofold.  First, my research will attempt to reject the stigma of male breast cancer, extending the current representation of it as a strictly female disease.  It is my hope that by bringing men into the discussion, we can promote early detection.  I am also motivated on a more personal level, because my father is a survivor of breast cancer.

Is this your first independent research project?


Do you get course credit for this work?
Yes, I am receiving three independent study credits.


How much time do you put into it?

The amount of time I put into the research varies each week. Currently, I spend several hours weekly searching for subjects, photographing, and doing further research.


How did you hear about the Undergraduate Research Award program?

In the fall of 2008 I took Documentary Photography with Calla Thompson. The final project was a documentary of our choosing, I documented male breast cancer and the effects. During the critique I mentioned in the future I would like to take this project to the next level and photograph more survivors as a means to educate men about male breast cancer. Professor Thompson asked if I had heard of the Undergraduate Research Award. I did a little research on the URA and found this was exactly what I was looking for.


What academic background did you have before you started?

I had taken several photography classes.


Was the application difficult to do?

The application was not difficult to complete. I created a draft and put some ideas on paper. Professor Thompson helped with the editing and asked me write more in depth about specific parts of the application.  With her help a concise application was created.


What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?  

If you have an idea, speak with your professors!

What are your career goals?

I want to be a documentary photographer.

What has been the hardest part about your research?

Thus far the hardest part of the research has been finding subjects. Breast cancer affects about 200 men in the US each year. Men make up less than one percent of the total number breast cancer cases.

What was the most unexpected thing?

Today I met with my first subject, and the conversation that took place was amazing. He is very active in educating men about breast cancer. His photographs and testimony along with two other men will create a series that can be used to educate others about male breast cancer.