The image below is a composite of over 19,000 Instagram photographs carrying a hashtag related to cancer. Each one of them contains a personal experience with the disease: patients maintaining a diary of their treatment; family and friends supporting patients; researchers sharing progress or ideas; activists advocating further investment into cancer research; businesses promoting their products through CSR; or users simply engaging with a disease that is now the leading cause of premature death in Europe.

Composite of over 19,000 images containing hashtags related to cancer, ordered by brightness, hue and saturation.

We analysed Instagram and Flickr to identify photographs carrying hashtags related to cancer. First, we followed the account of the AECC, Spain's largest society working to support cancer patients and their families. From there, we identified 50 accounts of people who explicitly mentioned cancer treatment in their profiles. We analysed the keywords they used and built a list of 20 different areas of study:
#LungCancer, #BreastCancer, #PancreaticCancer, #Leukemia, #ProstateCancer, #ColorectalCancer, #ColonCancer, #Stomach Cancer, #WombCancer
#CancerResearch, #ContraElCancer, #CancerSurvivor, #CancerSucks, #Movember, #BreastCancerAwareness, #BreastCancerSurvivor, #LungCancerAwareness, #PancreaticCancerAwareness, #CancerFree


Polar graph showing the hue distribution of over 19,000 images carrying one of 20 keywords related to cancer. The angle indicates the keyword studied. while the distance from the centre of the image is defined by the median hue of each image represented.

Using ImageJ and the macros developed by the Software Studies Initiative, we analysed over 33,000 photographs and produced a series of "landscapes" and "portraits" to show the visual traits of each of the 20 areas of study. The image above is just one of them, showing the colour identity of cancer-related images on Instagram by category.
We were interested in the visual features of images related to cancer, especially in their colour. As the most socially visible type of cancer, we wanted to explore whether and how breast cancer was represented in social media. Breast cancer is generally attached to the colour pink through awareness-raising campaigns. We discovered that breast cancer is not the only cancer with a visual identity: activists are promoting the colour blue to raise awareness about lung cancer, while purple is being used to advocate increased funding for research on pancreatic cancer.
The images below are an expansion of the Instagram cancer landscape. To the left, the same radial graph with a legend attached. To the right, we manually weighted each keyword to represent the actual proportion of images on Instagram that carry it.
Here is an overview of the total number of images observed in the Explore page of Instagram by hashtag:
Cancer discourse is alive in social media. It takes the shape of the survivorship discourse. It wears the #FuckCancer hashtag to stand a fight. It morphs into #CancerSucks to show its ugliness and the fatigue it creates in patients. It thrives in optimistic narrative and anti-cancer meals.
All these narratives inhabit the same space as celebrities, memes, travel photography or fine arts. They take different shapes and configure the social media landscape of cancer. The images below show a "portrait" of each type of cancer and each slogan, revealing their color and brightness dimensions.
First, on Flickr:
On Instagram:
To date, there is no research published on the visual identity of the images created by cancer patients, their families, or cancer support organisations in social media, nor on the impact that these have on other patients.  F#ckCancer is an attempt to do just that, instigating a broader process to identify, analyse and discuss cancer images with patients.

Composite of over 14,000 photographs on Flickr containing keywords related to cancer, sorted by hue.

We have scratched the surface and visualised the high-level features of cancer-related images in social media. We now hope to take it forward by including more Data Science to help us process more data, faster, and link with cancer support organisations for a review of the results.
F#ckCancer is a project by Miguel Varela with the support of Kelsey Barton-Henry. Submitted as project for the Rethink Unit. MA of Photorjournalism and Documentary Photography. Univerisity of the Arts London.
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