Nancy Borowick: Cancer Family is a personal series about a photographer's parents dealing with cancer (PHOTOS).

A Photographer Processes Her Parents’ Cancer in These Raw and Touching Images

A Photographer Processes Her Parents’ Cancer in These Raw and Touching Images

Behold
The Photo Blog
Feb. 10 2015 10:24 AM

A Photographer Processes Her Parents’ Cancer by Documenting It in These Raw and Touching Images 

Howie calls these “his and hers” chairs. He sits beside Laurel, his wife of thirty-four years, as they get their weekly chemotherapy treatments, side by side at Oncologist Dr. Barry Boyd’s office. Greenwich, Connecticut. January, 2013.
Howie calls these “his and hers” chairs. He sits beside Laurel, his wife of 34 years, as they get their weekly chemotherapy treatments in Connecticut, January 2013.

Nancy Borowick

Nancy Borowick often uses the world surreal when discussing the past two years of her life: Her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that would take his life a year and a day later, and then, her mother, who had also been battling cancer, succumbed to the disease a day before the one-year anniversary of his death. Borowick had been documenting her time with both parents and her two siblings, sometimes joyous, other times painful, and came away with a body of work that is raw in its portrayal of the devastation of cancer but also, more importantly, speaks to the importance and intimacy of family.

The project began as a practical solution for Borowick to help care for her mother whose cancer came back in 2009 after more than a decade of being in remission (she was initially diagnosed in 1997). Borowick had just started studying at the International Center of Photography in New York City at the time and needed to help her mother during treatment—she felt it might be a good idea to turn the experience into a personal project and began spending time at the family home in Chappaqua, New York.

“Shooting her seemed to be a natural way for me to do that during school and also have a community of classmates and editors who could be there with me while I’m embarking on my personal project,” Borowick said.

Like wedding rings, Laurel and Howie Borowick wear similar medical bracelets, which the nurses scan throughout their chemotherapy treatments together at the oncologists office. They do a dance, as both caretaker and patient and husband and wife, simultaneously trying to be there for the other but also trying to get through the day them selves. Greenwich, Connecticut. January, 2013.
Like wedding rings, Laurel and Howie Borowick wear similar medical bracelets, which the nurses scan throughout their chemotherapy treatments, January 2013.

Nancy Borowick

Late one evening, Howie cuts Laurel’s hair, knowing that it will start falling out on its own in the coming weeks as a side effect from the chemotherapy. Chappaqua, New York. February 2013.
Late one evening, Howie cuts Laurel’s hair, knowing that it will start falling out on its own in the coming weeks. Chappaqua, New York. February 2013.

Nancy Borowick

Treatment leaves Howie Borowick exhausted most days, and he can be found napping in various rooms around his house, like the living room, along side his grand-puppy Nova, an eight-month old Vizsla. Chappaqua, New York. February, 2013.
Treatment leaves Howie Borowick exhausted most days, and he can be found napping in various rooms around his house in Chappaqua, February 2013.

Nancy Borowick

Howie and Laurel Borowick sit next to the bathroom telephone as they hear the most recent news from their oncologist- good scans for both of them, and their respective tumors are shrinking. Chappaqua, New York. March 2013.
Howie and Laurel sit next to the bathroom telephone as they hear the most recent news from their oncologist: good scans for both of them. March 2013.

Nancy Borowick

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In order to go deeper within the work, Borowick asked for transparency from both of her parents when discussing her mother’s illness to try to remove the parental shield they put up in order to protect their children.  

“It was the first time I got to know them as individuals and not just my parents,” she said about the process. She would end up showing the work on Time’s photo blog Lightbox and was overwhelmed by the response from people who reached out and shared similar stories with her.

And then, in 2013, while her mother was still battling cancer (she had gone into remission in the fall of 2010 but the cancer came back a year later), they found out her father had metastatic stage-4 pancreatic cancer. Suddenly, Borowick and her younger brother and older sister found themselves caring for two gravely ill parents, both of whom were still in their 50s. Borowick's mother was not only taking care of herself, but also wanted to be the caregiver for her husband.

“When my father was diagnosed, she turned her focus to him, while she also cared for herself,” Borowick said. “She was superhuman in many ways, but as one of her daughters, I felt like it was my duty to step up and support because she always put others before herself.”

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Borowick once again headed to Chappaqua.

Thankful for every year together, Laurel Borowick, surrounded by her family, celebrates her 58th birthday at a restaurant in Manhattan. New York, New York. March, 2013.
Thankful for every year together, Laurel Borowick, surrounded by her family, celebrates her 58th birthday at a restaurant in Manhattan. March, 2013.

Nancy Borowick

Howie and Laurel Borowick embrace in the bedroom of their home. In their thirty-four year marriage, they never could have imagined being diagnosed with stage-4 cancer at the same time. Chappaqua, New York. March 2013.
Howie and Laurel embrace in the bedroom of their home in Chappaqua. March 2013.

Nancy Borowick

As part of Jewish tradition, Howard and Laurel Borowick, parents of the bride, are lifted in chairs during the Hora. Highland, New York. October, 2013.
As part of Jewish tradition, Howard and Laurel Borowick, parents of the bride, are lifted in chairs during the Hora. Highland, New York. October 2013.

Nancy Borowick

“Photographing them seemed to be the natural way for me to be with them and process what was happening.”

Borowick made three decisions about the project. First, it would be in black and white since she says that is how she sees her memories. Second, she wanted the content—not distractions such as hospital lights—to be the focus.

Most importantly, she decided to disassociate the project and act as if she were shooting strangers on assignment. “I forgot they were my parents and then I realized there was a lot I was seeing, the situation was happening because they were sick, but to me, the story was more about their relationship with each other, and our family, and love and understanding. I realized many stories of those with cancer focus entirely on the one who is sick but I found that our story was also about our whole family, as everyone felt the diagnosis.”

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Borowick said her father was more outgoing than her mother and was therefore a bit easier to photograph, but when her mother’s health began to fail after so many years on treatment, photographing her shifted.

“My mom was always a bit more private and it made it harder for me to get closer to her because I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable,” Borowick said. But now her mother felt an urgency, telling her “I always felt I had so much time and suddenly I’m realizing I don’t and there are so many things I wanted to say and do and I wanted to write letters to you kids.” For Borowick, her images are a version of those letters.

“I think I’ve always been a storyteller, this type of work is what I’ve always meant to be doing.”

Howard Borowick and his family celebrate the first night of Hannukah in the hospital by talking and singing, interrupted by nurses and doctors taking vitals and administering medication. The next day they celebrated Thanksgiving. Howard would never return home. Greenwich, CT. November, 2013.
Howard Borowick and his family celebrate the first night of Hannukah in the hospital by talking and singing, interrupted by nurses and doctors taking vitals and administering medication. The next day they celebrated Thanksgiving. Howard would never return home. Greenwich, Connecticut. November, 2013.

Nancy Borowick

Recovering from a collapsed lung and managing a recent pneumonia diagnosis, Howard Borowick takes a walk down the hallways of Medical Oncology with the assistance of wife, Laurel Borowick, left, by his side. Greenwich, Connecticut. November, 2013.
Recovering from a collapsed lung, Howard Borowick takes a walk with the assistance of wife, Laurel Borowick. Greenwich, Connecticut. November 2013.

Nancy Borowick

Howard Borowick left instructions for his funeral because he was a planner, and liked to be in charge, even in death. He requested to be buried in his favorite Giant’s football jersey, a pair of jeans, and his HB baseball cap. Laurel Borowick, his wife, smiles at him as they spend their last moment together before the casket is closed and the funeral begins. Mt. Kisco, New York. December 2013.
Howard Borowick requested to be buried in his favorite Giant’s football jersey, a pair of jeans, and his HB baseball cap. Laurel Borowick, his wife, smiles at him as they spend their last moment together before the casket is closed and the funeral begins. Mt. Kisco, New York. December 2013.

Nancy Borowick

David Rosenberg is the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.