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Couple’s moving cancer journey documented by daughter

Couple’s moving cancer journey documented by daughter

An American photographer whose parents battled stage four cancer simultaneously has captured their journey in a powerful exhibition. Despite their situation, the couple endured their treatment with love, hope and a passion for life.

Couple’s moving cancer journey documented by daughter

At 28 years old, Nancy Borowick found herself faced with two parents battling stage four cancer. Her father Howie had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, while mother Laurel was fighting her third bout of breast cancer. Determined not to fall apart as her parents suffered, she decided to document their cancer journey with a series of black and white photographs. The result is a moving and at times surprisingly uplifting depiction of two people with a deep love for each other – and for life.

Happy images from Nancy’s wedding – which she moved forward so her parents could attend – show the power of new memories, while shots of Howie shaving Laurel’s hair are sobering. The images show the good and the bad, from the couple enjoying a pre-chemotherapy swim together, to the eventual funerals, one year apart. We chat to Nancy about the project and how it has impacted both her and people around the world.

Photo by Nancy Borowick

What inspired you to document your parents’ cancer journey?

Photographing my parents’ journey started pretty organically. Not knowing how much time we had left together, I knew that I wanted and needed to be with them as often as possible. Photography allowed me a familiar context through which I could better process what was happening while also providing a safety net and distance that shielded me from the actual reality. I thought my parents would always be there over the course of my life so when I realised that I was losing them before my 30th birthday, I knew I needed to find a way to hold onto them and capture the essence of who they were.

What would you say are the key messages the series has to share?

When my parents were faced with their own mortality, they decided to make the most of the time they had left on this earth. They chose to live, grow and love, and as a result, their courage and strength inspired me and others to live by the example they set. They taught me a great deal over the short two-year span that they were sick together, and I feel a responsibility to share these lessons with others. As my dad once said, “We were never promised longevity and each day is a gift.” His parents both died of cancer when he was young so he learned this lesson early. Because of this, he made sure to live his life to the fullest with few regrets. To those who may relate to my parents’ cancer or the feeling of loss, I hope this story (and The Family Imprint book) offers a sense of comfort and community. I know first-hand how lonely and scary times like these can be. I also hope that this story inspires people to appreciate the time that they have and to hold the people dear to them a little closer. It is a cliché but “life is short” has become a daily mantra in my life and after all, it’s a cliché because it is true!

Photo by Nancy Borowick

Do you have a favourite or particularly special image?

All of the images have significance to me but if I had to choose one, I choose the image I call, “The Embrace” (Pictured below). This photograph represented a turning point in my story and I believe taking it played an important role in my development as both a human and as a photographer. During this time, it was a novelty to have me around the home and this fact made it tremendously difficult to blend in with the background as an observer. With time and persistence, however, the dance I did between my roles as daughter and photographer found its stride and my parents began to truly open up in front of me. They showed their weaknesses, their fears, their struggles but also their strengths, determination and love for one another. A moment earlier, my mom and dad were bare-chested, showing me, and my camera, their wounds and matching port-a-caths. I was so surprised by the graphic nature of what I was seeing in that moment that I accidentally cut off the tops of their heads. They were completely vulnerable and trusting of me and while I requested transparency as a journalist, maybe as their daughter I wasn’t emotionally prepared for it.

Then, the scene changed and this was the photograph that I captured. My dad threw his arms around my mom and pulled her in close for a tight hug and kiss. They held each other for a seemingly endless few moments. Looking at this image, years after it was taken, and years after they have died, I am reminded of their resilience and courage, in how they faced their own mortality but also in how they revealed themselves to me, their daughter, with such sincerity. It was here when I was reminded of the great responsibility we have as photographers to tell stories truthfully and also with respect, and I try to honour these lessons, I learned from my parents, in the work I do which has followed.

Photo by Nancy Borowick

What has the feedback been like from ordinary people?

The feedback has been tremendous. People from around the world have reached out, thanking me for sharing my story and then feeling compelled to share their own with me, often starting their emails with: “I have never shared this with anyone before.” What I went through… it is all part of the universal human experience and I believe that is what connects us and why this project spread across the globe like it did. Sharing with strangers, and friends, has allowed me to feel less alone and this relationship, this give and take, is so beautifully symbiotic and human. Continuing to tell my story has given me a greater purpose in my life, as I get to simultaneously honour and remember my parents memory, but also share the many lessons and advice they taught my siblings and I. Their lives, and deaths, were not in vain, and something so beautiful was able to come out of this moment in our lives.

Nancy went on to win second place in the long-term projects category of the 2016 World Press Photography Awards for her powerful portrayal of life with cancer.

Photo by Nancy Borowick



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