Portraits of Hope depicts cancer survivors

There’s a bond among those who have battled cancer and won.

They know what how to fight and how important it is to have family and friends as their mainstay. They gather for Relay for Life, raise money and encourage others. Through it all, they build fortitude. They are survivors.

Within their impressive ranks are local residents who agreed to be photographed for the Portraits of Hope project and whose faces and poses each tell a poignant story. The images, taken by local photographer Stephen DiCarlo, some in color, others in black and white, hang like banners in Acorn Market downtown.

Joan Wharton is one of them, said Renee Stephens of Relay for Life, as she talked about the survivors and of conceiving of the idea.

When she was 25, after returning from her honeymoon, Wharton was told she had cancer and wouldn’t live. Today, at age 40, she is the proud mother of a 3-year-old. In the photo with that boy, she’s flexing her muscle.

Another is 44-year-old Penny Travers who, in the photograph, is in the foreground with family and friends behind her. Diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2013, Travers celebrated four years as a survivor last month.

“My picture is actually most of my team, which consists of my family and friends. That team keeps growing every year,” Travers said this week.

“I have three older sisters and no true family history of breast cancer so, being the baby and being diagnosed, hit them really hard. I come from a huge family of a lot of women. For us it was more of a bonding moment. Even though we were extremely close we became even closer,” she said.

Using the name Penny’s Loafers, her team of advocates includes her mother, sisters, nieces and the helpful men in the family, so when she saw the photo, with the word “family” printed on it, her initial thought was “love.”

“This project is getting people to ask questions, to see the pictures and ask, ‘What are these for?’” said Travers, the mother of two daughters, 13 and 18, and a 23-year-old son,

“It puts a face to cancer. Our biggest goal was, we wanted to put faces to it. Even if people who see the pictures don’t know who these people are, they’ve seen them around the community, around town. They know they are from here,” she said.

DiCarlo began photographing the survivors after Stephens contacted him and gave him a little background about each of them. Randy Taylor at Parker Place let him create a makeshift studio and he was careful to convey to the models how important they were.

“I sat down with everybody. If they had somebody in the room I asked if it was OK to do it privately. It’s really hard to connect with somebody when somebody else is talking behind you. I wanted to make sure they knew they had my undivided attention. I was looking for cues from them, especially any particular adjectives,” DiCarlo said.

Five-year-old Josie Herbert, who was recently diagnosed, was a lot of fun, he said.

“I was able to connect with her. I have nieces and nephews but it took everything in me to try to figure out how to relate to a 5-year-old with cancer. She’s handling it but she’s still trying to grasp it. I can’t imagine,” DiCarlo said.

“I found that the experience itself was exhilarating and draining at the same time. It was a lot of work setting up the studio, making the sure the lighting was all right, but that didn’t compare to the emotional toll that it took. I found myself completely enthralled in their stories. I had a deep burning desire to want to do them justice and portray them accurately. None of them asked for pity. Cancer touched all of their lives but they all found a way to make it positive, right down to Lester,” he said.

He was referring to a man who was reunited with his son, after he was diagnosed with cancer.

“So, in his case, he’s grateful to cancer,” DiCarlo said.

“I never expected to go through such a variety of emotions. I expected to feel bad for these people but what I ended up feeling was almost small. I almost felt like the things I complain about are really silly when somebody is out there right now fighting for their life from this disease attacking them from the inside out,” he said.

Survivor Sandy Fitzgerald, owner of Salisbury Pohanka and Angello’s Unique Gifts beside Acorn Market, “told me that her attitude was, if death wants me it’s going to have to catch me running,” DiCarlo recalled.

“There was fire in those eyes. She was going through cancer at the same time as a gentlemen in the community that a lot of the community knew. They had the same kind of cancer and were diagnosed close together. He took chemo. She started that, but was getting very sick. She was very discouraged, so she went with an all-natural route,” he said.

DiCarlo’s brother, Joey, of DiCarlo Digital Copy Center, donated thousands of dollars in prints. The result is a dozen captivating photographs, with two being group shots.

“At any moment we could get that phone call that we all dread,” Stephens said, referring to a cancer diagnosis.

“We wanted to show what hope looks like. I asked the Relay for Life committee to think of people, to get their stories and what that portrait of hope could be for them. I wanted to see us capture, in snapshots, old, young, African-Americans, white, various ages in different stages of cancer. We have little Josie Herbert, who is just starting treatment. It evokes emotion. Cancer doesn’t discriminate, so, we wanted to say, ‘Here’s a sampling of our community. Here’s why we all have Relay for Life and support each other,’” Stephens said.

Agreeing, Travers said her support for fellow fighters extended to not concentrating on her illness as much as thinking about those who were suffering more.

“I tried to not focus on myself,” she said. “You focus on somebody else. You keep going and you keep fighting because of them.”

“Those portraits are beautiful,” Debbie White, senior community manager of the American Cancer Society’s Salisbury office, said.

“Portraits of Hope is Renee’s brainchild. We were in Acorn Market, talking about marketing and she said she wanted to bring it back to our mission. She said everyone has a face of cancer in their life. Then she said, ‘That’s it! Faces of cancer.’ What I am intrigued with, with Renee, is she truly has our mission at heart and in everything she does,” White said.


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