When most oversized swells hit the coast of San Francisco during the winter, documentary filmmaker and big-wave surf photographer Sachi Cunningham can be found bobbing about in the frigid lineup of Ocean Beach, head to toe in rubber, aiming her water housing toward the crew of brave souls who choose to charge massive waves. Cunningham teaches journalism at San Fransisco State, has won Emmys for her documentary films, and over the past few years, has gained even further notoriety for her skills as a big-wave surf photographer. But this last winter, Cunningham had to sit out on a few supersized days. She was diagnosed with cancer during the summer of 2016 and started chemotherapy shortly thereafter.
Throughout this whole process, Cunningham made a vow not to let cancer dampen her life, her goals, and her love for the ocean. When most people talk about surfing, the subject of cancer is far from the center of conversation. But Cunningham chose to be outspoken about her diagnosis, often posting honest updates on Facebook and Instagram about her therapy sessions. Earlier this week, just a day before she was set to go under the knife for reconstructive surgery, we called Cunningham to talk about her year, why the ocean helped her recover, and how cancer has ultimately changed her outlook on surfing.
What was that moment like for you when the doctors diagnosed you with cancer?
Well, it was pretty shocking, but I guess not entirely surprising. I had tested positive for the BRCA1 gene and the doctors had given me pretty scary statistics––a 90 percent chance of getting breast cancer and a 60 percent chance of getting ovarian cancer. I did a series of tests, CT scans, and blood tests and nothing indicated that I had cancer. But I got a double mastectomy and a total hysterectomy about a year ago, on July 20th to prevent from getting anything. It wasn’t until I had these surgeries and everything had been removed that they discovered a 2mm tumor in my fallopian tubes. To find out that I actually had something growing inside me was surprising, but also very much a relief that I had done the surgeries. Then I started my therapy in August, which consisted of six rounds of chemo, once every three weeks.
What made you want to get tested for the BRACA1 gene?
My mom had breast cancer when she was 30 and got a mastectomy after that. Then she was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer when she was 45. She died of that when he was 49. Because she was diagnosed with both cancers at such a young age, I thought I qualified as high-risk.
It seems like you've been pretty vocal on social media about everything from your diagnosis to your regular chemotherapy treatments. What made you want to share those experiences publicly?
It was actually really empowering. I wanted to be public about it because I knew I'd be losing my hair and I wouldn't be able to hide from the fact that I had cancer––it would be physically obvious to anyone. So I did it in part just for convenience. Also, my mom was very private about her own struggle, which was her own choice, but I think I would've preferred to talk more about it when it was happening. I wanted other people to be able to feel comfortable about it through my experience. I wanted to normalize it. Everyone has been touched by cancer on some level, so why should we hide from it?
How has surf photography played a role throughout this whole process?
I think it saved me. It was a medicine in my arsenal of things that have kept me alive––and continues to keep me alive. Being in the ocean lets you connect with something larger than yourself. One of the hardest things about cancer is not knowing what is going to happen next and having a total loss of control. I felt fine and strong a lot of the time, and I really I owe that to the ritual I had of swimming in big waves. Every time I went out in the water during a bigger swell, it was a practice of being in an environment that I had no control over and that I needed to keep my mind and body calm in that situation. I was trying to apply the lessons that I had learned swimming in big waves to life and to this, you know, tragedy.
Did you feel weak at all in the ocean while you were doing chemotherapy?
Yeah, definitely. I wasn't sure I was going to be able to swim out there. Especially on big days, I had to take it slow. I had to stay out of the water for 6 weeks immediately after my surgery and I was very weak. I would get out of breath just going up the stairs. The first few times I went out I actually got out of the water pretty quickly because I kind of scared myself. I would dive under waves and come up totally lightheaded and dizzy and off-balance. I recognized that I wasn't safe in that situation, so I didn't push myself. I wasn't reckless or careless. The first big swell I went out this season, I had just finished chemo and was starting to feel stronger.
You continued to work on various projects throughout the past year. What is difficult juggling work and therapy?
After I found out I was going to have to do chemotherapy, there was one project I considered not doing. But I did it for the same reason I went back into the ocean. I thought about it and told myself I can do it. I used a smaller camera because I knew I couldn't carry my usual-sized rig and I probably surprised some people on set by showing up with no hair. But I wanted to normalize it. I wanted people to understand that people with cancer can still work and be creative and contribute.
I know you were able to attend the women’s first WSL big-wave event at Pe’ahi in between your chemo treatments. How was that experience for you in the midst of your pain?
It was awesome. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I was was all geared up to follow the women this season and do a documentary about them. I was concerned that I'd miss this moment in history because I was actually scheduled to get a chemo treatment the day of the contest. But one of my chemo sessions got canceled, so my treatment was off by a week and I was able to go. Thank god I missed that treatment. I would've been really devastated if I missed that contest. I think it was a little surprising for people to see me. That was the very last of my treatments so that was the sickest I looked. But whatever––I just looked like Shane Dorian and Kelly Slater [Laughs].
Do you feel a sense of relief at this point, being done with chemo and now getting reconstructive surgeries out of the way?
I do feel a sense of relief. But there is definitely a part of me that goes,‘Am I going to get cancer from this?’ if I eat a piece of bacon or something. I'm definitely in a heightened state of awareness of signs that I might have cancer, but I know a lot of that is psychosomatic. But as a whole, yes, I'm extremely relieved. I think there's always going to be a monkey on my back because I have this gene that wants to make cancer. But what can you do? Just live life.
Has your view or outlook on surfing changed after last year?
That is the real gift of cancer: if you can survive it, you realize that life is so beautiful. I'm going to be curious how I approach big waves next winter. I think I'm going to feel a lot braver out in the surf, actually. I'm not going to hesitate anymore taking off on bigger waves and I'm not going to be holding back as much. It [cancer] makes you realize and appreciate those special swells and special days and that one special wave. I have a lot less fear now because I looked death in the face. I understand that we are all going to die, and that makes you a lot less afraid of it.