HANOI, Vietnam -- Carolyn Taylor wasnt even sure she had come to the right place, as she walked into Vietnam National Cancer Hospital in November.
The place was in chaos, with people propped against walls, some sleeping, many in the late stages of cancer.
When Taylor, a business owner from upstate New York and a cancer survivor herself, entered the hospital in the Vietnamese capital, her aim merely was to photograph the people in a cancer-support group. She was in Vietnam as part of a round-the-world trip made possible by winning tickets from a British Airways contest.
But her trip quickly became more than the photographs from that Hanoi hospital, as well as the photos from hospitals and cancer centers in 11 other countries she visited. Instead, it became about helping the people she met along the way. And it led her to start Global Focus on Cancer, a non-profit organization that works to create cancer support and awareness programs around the world.
Her journey has now taken Taylor by trade, a commercial food and product photographer from South Salem, N.Y., around the world and back again.
As a commercial photographer, Taylor had plenty of experience taking photographs, but she admitted the prospect of trying to convey the story of such a life-changing disease was daunting.
I can make a roast chicken look delicious, but what am I going to do to help people with cancer? she said.
Doctors had diagnosed Taylor with ovarian and endometrial cancer in 2006. They caught it so early that two weeks after her diagnosis, Taylor was cancer-free and back to work. But she knew shed had a lucky escape; she wanted to help others not so lucky.
Her tickets to Vietnam and 11 other countries came from British Airways, which sponsored an essay competition in 2010. Taylor described how 10 free flights could change the face of her commercial photography business. I felt completely unqualified to do it, she said. I was petrified when I got the phone call from BA to say Id won.
The first thing she did was connect with other organizations that were working internationally to improve cancer awareness and treatment, including the International Cancer Control in Geneva and the American Cancer Society. Then, in just one year, she traveled to India, Nepal, Israel, Jordan, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Kenya, Tanzania, Italy and Switzerland.
It was seeing the difference between Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, where she was treated, and the hospitals to which she traveled in less-developed countries that was emotionally jarring.
It was painful for me to see people in those conditions, knowing how sick they were, she said.
In Kenya, Taylor met a woman who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had refused all treatment and was resigned to death. But within 30 minutes, the woman was laughing and dancing around Taylors hotel room as Taylor handed her a mastectomy bra she had brought.
Being able to do that for someone and to have such a major impact on them thats when I decided to take this further, she said.
Of all her trips, the one that stuck with Taylor the most was to Vietnam. Since her first visit there in November 2011, Taylor has been back one other time and is planning another trip by the end of the year.
Visiting three of the countrys four cancer centers during her first visit, she saw low survival rates and overwhelmed facilities.