Chronicling a Family’s History of Cancer

Photojournalist Nancy Borowick captured the last years of her parents’ lives as they were treated for advanced cancer. The images tell a story of life, hope, and love.

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Cancer has been an intimate part of Nancy Borowick’s life since her mother, Laurel, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, when Nancy was 12. She began photographing her mother’s journey with the disease after the cancer recurred in 2009 for her final project for the Documentary Photography and Photojournalism program at the International Center of Photography in New York and continued photographing her mother as she underwent additional treatment when the cancer recurred again in 2011. When Ms. Borowick’s father, Howie, was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in 2012, he asked his daughter to photograph him as well as he underwent treatment.

The following quote is from Howie Borowick on his outlook on life. “My philosophy on life is that it’s a gift, and any amount of years is a gift. Nobody promised me longevity. Nobody promised me success. Nobody promised me love. Nobody promised me healthy kids. Nobody promised me good friends. Nobody promised me a great career, and yet, I’ve had all of them. So, I’m way ahead in the balloting and accounting. I have no regrets because without any guarantees, I’ve been able to achieve those things and been blessed with them for a long, long time.”

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The result is a remarkable photographic history of a family’s life after a cancer diagnosis. The photographs show their shared struggle, strength, hope, humor, and love. The camera, said Ms. Borowick, became a “therapeutic tool” to help her family process the challenge of having two parents facing stage IV cancer.

Lesson in Courage

“Here is where my parents taught us a lesson in courage: Rather than wallowing in their own sadness and grief, they chose to spend their final months living life. Yes, there was chemotherapy, but there were also family dinners, late-night movies, spontaneous vacations, and fireside chats. I photographed it all. I captured every moment because I needed to hold on

to each memory, each frame; I wanted to hold onto the essence of who my parents were and who my family was, before the moments passed and they were gone,” wrote Ms. Borowick in her new book, The Family Imprint: A Daughter’s Portrait of Love and Loss (Hatje Cantz, May 2017).

Howie Borowick died on December 7, 2013, at the age of 58. Laurel Borowick, 59, died a year later on December 6, 2014.

Several of the photographs and their captions appearing in The Family Imprint are excerpted here. 

Late one evening, Dad shaved Mom’s head knowing her hair would start falling out on its own in the upcoming weeks as a side effect of the chemotherapy. This was the third time in their relationship he had to shave her head: once with each diagnosis. Mom explained what she was feeling when this photo was taken. It felt strange because I had no hair and no breast. I felt kind of weird, kind of masculine. I didn’t feel like I was a feminine being. I didn’t feel I was a sexual being. I kind of felt like an “it.” I looked in the mirror and was just this funny-looking person. I didn’t look like a man or a woman. I just looked like an “it.” Dad gave me the strength to come out the other side and to get through it.

Dad called these “his and hers chairs.” He would sit beside Mom, his partner and wife of 34 years, as they received their weekly chemotherapy treatments. He had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she was in treatment for breast cancer for the third time in her life. For him, it was new and unknown, and for her, it was business as usual, another appointment on her calendar.

Howie and Laurel Borowick accompany their daughter, Nancy (center), on her wedding day, October 5, 2013. Two months later, Mr. Borowick died of
pancreatic cancer. Photo credit: Matt Borowick

All eyes were on Mom’s chest as she took her final breath on December 6, 2014. And then it was over. No more breaths. Mom’s brother, a physician, checked her pulse. Then a friend, also a physician, followed suit. They called her time of death: Mom was gone. There were tears of sadness, tears of exhaustion, and tears of relief filling her bedroom that afternoon.

Celebrating 10 Years of The ASCO Post: A Retrospective

The ASCO Post launched 10 years ago at the 2010 ASCO Annual Meeting. Over the past several months of 2020, we have been publishing a retrospective series of article selections, looking back at some of the highlights published over the past decade. This installment was originally published in The ASCO Post on October 25, 2017.

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