'Mondays At Racine' Highlights Women's Emotional Lives During Cancer

Audie Cornish talks with Cynthia Wade. She is the director of Mondays At Racine, a documentary about how some women deal with the physical and emotional scars from cancer. The short film has been nominated for an Oscar.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, our fifth and final conversation about this year's Oscar-nominated short documentaries. Our final entry is "Mondays at Racine." That's a 39-minute exploration of the physical and emotional scars of cancer. And it captures patients in their most vulnerable moments.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MONDAYS AT RACINE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I feel like as soon as I shaved my head, every time I look in the mirror, I'm just going to see cancer. I don't know if I'm ready to see that right now.

BLOCK: My co-host Audie Cornish talked with the film's director.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Cynthia Wade, what was it like capturing these moments? I mean, this is a moment before a woman is deciding I need to shave my head.

CYNTHIA WADE: Well, I think embarking in any documentary, you really are falling down a rabbit hole. You don't know where the story is going. I followed women for about two and a half years as they were diagnosed - some were young women, some were older women - and followed the path of their illness and their fight against cancer. But it's really not a medical film. It's a film about their emotional lives and ultimately a film about their marriages and what the cancer does to their marriages.

CORNISH: And it's anchored at this salon, Racine's, where they essentially have a kind of like a free spa day for women who are survivors of breast cancer, right?

WADE: That's correct. The owners, Rachel and Cynthia, they lost their mother to breast cancer at a time when people felt uncomfortable with shaved heads and watched their mother really withdraw from society and grieved over that. And women come through the doors once a month, women who are losing their hair, their eyelashes, their eyebrows, and they may get a makeover, they may get a facial, a massage, a pedicure, manicure, but ultimately it's a safe space where everything is free. They do it on a volunteer basis once a month. And it's a place where people can cry and laugh and connect with one another.

CORNISH: Essentially, the heart of this movie isn't just how people deal with the cancer, but how women who are dealing with their sense of beauty and self-worth.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MONDAYS AT RACINE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It's making a point that now I have to face the fact that, yes, I am a cancer patient. So for me, it's devastating.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: It's like your hair is part of your identity and that's been taken. And then your eyebrows start to thin and then your eyelashes fall out and you feel like you're being erased.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Because of cancer, I don't feel like a woman, and I feel like an alien.

CORNISH: You feel like you're being erased. I think that line really, really struck me when I was watching the film.

WADE: Yeah, it's - why is hair so important? That's really the central question in the film. In the face of a cancer diagnosis, in the face of potentially losing your life, does it matter that much that you're losing your hair? And yet, it's such a defining aspect of how we look and how we present ourselves to the world and how the world perceives us. And it was very disturbing for many of the women who would be going into a store that they've gone into five years prior with hair and they go in and they don't have any hair.

They don't have any eyelashes or eyebrows. And they're not recognized by the storekeepers. They're not recognized by the other customers. And it was so disturbing to them because, you know, who then am I in the world and how does the world see me? And if these defining features are being taken away from my face, how do I navigate that and how do I navigate my place in the world?

CORNISH: You're also catching someone like Cambria at their most vulnerable. There's a scene where she's talking about her scars.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MONDAYS AT RACINE")

CAMBRIA RUSSELL: It's OK. So you need to see the scars from the double mastectomy (unintelligible) cancer was. So, anyway, radiation start in a week or so.

CORNISH: How do you even begin to kind of ask someone to film those moments?

WADE: Well, Cambria filmed that. I don't think I would have included that scene had I been filming it. I think it would have felt too invasive, but the fact that she filmed herself in front of a mirror and then gave me that tape made it OK. When she first got a double mastectomy at age 36 - very unexpectedly she was diagnosed with an aggressive stage 3 cancer - after her surgery, she said to me quite chirpily, do you want to see my scars?

My immediate reaction was no. And she said, why? And I said, I'm scared. And then I realized, wait a minute, hold on. If I'm making this film so that we can get to a place where scars are OK, if I, as the director, can't see her scars, there's something wrong. So I apologized to her and I said, you know what? That's just - that was my fear and I need to get over it, and that's part of the reason I'm making the film. Yes, please show me your scars.

CORNISH: As you said, this is also a movie about marriage and cancer's effects on people's relationships, kind of who deals with it well and who doesn't.

WADE: Yes. There's so much pressure in that diagnosis that things really kind of explode open in many cases. And in the case of one woman who I followed, she'd had cancer for 18 years, and the cancer really destroyed her husband first, emotionally. And it really driven them apart. And while I was filming, they broke up and he moved out of the house.

And he was a casualty of the cancer.

CORNISH: At the end of "Mondays at Racine," you see another customer coming in to get her head shaved and it feels like, you know, the beginning of a cycle. I'm curious what has happened to the main characters of your story.

WADE: The good news is that the main characters are all alive. One will be going with me to the Oscars, the young mother, Cambria. And the other women will be having Oscar parties at home. And in some cases, during the film, their marriages were tested greatly, but they will be in their homes with their husbands watching the Oscars, and that's the most gratifying part for me.

CORNISH: Cynthia Wade is director of the Oscar-nominated short documentary "Mondays at Racine." Cynthia, thank you for speaking with me.

WADE: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Cynthia Wade was talking with my co-host Audie Cornish.

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