INSPIRE: Tula Goenka, SU professor and breast cancer survivor

By Jamie Jenson

Photos by Maureen Tricase/Capture Your Moments


Tula Goenka was 44 when she got her breast diagnosis. It was 2006, and Tula, a professor in the Television, Radio and Film department at Syracuse University, said there wasn’t a lot of online support — social media had not yet taken off — and there weren’t nearly as many support groups as there are today.


“It was a very singular experience for me, I think,” Tula said. “You know, you just sort of had it and then you sort of went on with your life.”


But a cancer diagnosis is never really that simple, and Tula’s experience was no exception. After a diagnosis, Tula explained, things move quite quickly.


“You’ve just been told you have breast cancer, and then you’re like, ‘What?!’” she recalled. “And then it’s like, ‘OK, what kind of breast cancer?’ And then it’s, ‘OK, we’ll just take out the lump.’ And that’s all they were going to do with me— they were just going to take out the lump. ‘You’ve got the best type of breast cancer’ — that’s what they told me — ‘and you’ll be fine.’”


After Tula’s lumpectomy, however, the doctors couldn’t get clean margins, so they couldn’t be certain they had removed all of the cancer. That, coupled with the fact that her tumor was estrogen-based and could come back at any time, was enough for Tula to make the decision to have a double mastectomy.


Life marched on for Tula. A year after her surgery, she and her husband divorced. Her two children, who were quite young when Tula was diagnosed, grew up. But Tula did not put her cancer experience behind her.


“It changed my life completely, as it does anyone who’s been through it,” Tula said.


Around 2009, Tula said she walked into the lobby of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse and saw a poster advertising an upcoming speaking event featuring Christie Hefner, then chairwoman and chief executive officer of Playboy Enterprises and daughter of the magazine’s founder, Hugh Hefner.


Tula is passionate about women’s rights, and many in the Newhouse community were curious as to how she would handle this visit.


“Different people — faculty, staff, and students came to me and said, ‘Are you going to protest?’” she said.


Tula neither attended nor protested the event, but it did impact her.


“It really got me thinking at that point,” Tula said. “Would Playboy ever put a woman who’s had breast cancer surgery and silicone implants because of it on the centerfold? Most of the Playmates have silicone implants, but they don’t have them for the reason that I have them.”


Tula realized she could use her background in television, radio, and film to do something impactful for breast cancer survivors.


“I’m in a very fortunate place — I’m an activist,” she said. “I’m a filmmaker very much involved in justice and human rights issues, so now I can use my body and the bodies of others to tell the story of breast cancer survivors.”


Tula is telling that story through the Look Now Project: Facing Breast Cancer, a photography exhibition and multimedia installation. Last year, Tula launched the exhibition at the Point of Contact Gallery on West Fayette Street, where she presented portraits of 44 participants, including herself, who have survived or are living with breast cancer. Twenty-five of the participants, including two men, were willing to take two photographs that hung next to each other in the exhibit. In one portrait, they were fully clothed. The other was a photograph of their torso, their bare chests exposed. The other participants’ chests were also photographed, but Tula honored their request to remain anonymous. Cindy Bell, herself a breast cancer survivor, served as the project photographer.


“What we did was reclaim the centerfold,” Tula said. “Because we have 44 people who’ve been through breast cancer on it.”


The exhibit, Tula said, was just one part of a multi-layered project. This October, she has moved on to phase two, a documentary theatre piece called Tit Bits, where a panel of people — breast cancer survivors and their families, as well as renowned plastic surgeons who specialize in breast reconstruction, will tell their stories.


Tula is working on the project with writer Nancy Keefe Rhodes, with whom Tula has previously worked, including on the catalog for Look Now, and Kyle Bass, the associate artistic director of Syracuse Stage.


Tula said she had always wanted to do a performance piece, something along the lines of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues.


 She said society has sexualized women’s breasts, and her piece is about reclaiming the word “tits,” one of the seven words that’s forbidden on broadcast television, but she also wants to help answer one important question: What does it mean to have had breast cancer?


“I really just want to break the silence of breast cancer,” Tula said, “and have people understand what a patient goes through, and for somebody who’s going through it, to provide support for them and make them aware of the different choices they have.”


Tit Bits will be held in the Joyce Hergenhan Auditorium in Newhouse 3 on Syracuse University’s campus on October 24 and 25 from 7-9 p.m., and on October 26 from 2-4 p.m. It is free to the public.