Shortly before Christmas I was asked by a friend to photograph a family who's mother was fighting cancer. Junella had been given just months to live and had her heart set on some beautiful family portraits. How could I say no? What a joy to be able to bless a family so deserving of a little joy in the midst of an unbelievably tough situation.
I purposefully saved this post for the New Year. I wanted to share Junella's story with you today - this first day of the year - to help bring perspective on the year to come.
Each of us have been blessed with another year. It is my prayer that Junella's story will inspire you to live each new day to the fullest - to view each day as another gift, another opportunity to make a difference in someone else's life. Junella's story has touched my heart. I hope it does the same for you today.
I knew little of Junella's story before my session with her family. But, after spending time with her and observing how she interacted with her family and witnessing her spirit of joy, I knew hers was a story that had to be told. She has graciously allowed me to share her story with you. May it bless and encourage you this day.
This image was a test shot. I don't even remember taking the picture. It must have been captured while I was testing the strobe settings. Truthfully, I almost threw it in my trash bin. It isn't technically perfect. It isn't as sharp as I tend to like my portraits. But, for some reason, I kept coming back to it.
Though it doesn't show her joyful spirit, to me it portrays her battle. Something about Junella's expression and upward gaze in this portrait moves me. It depicts her belief that she can't fight this ugly disease on her own - that she needs her God. Daily she looks to him for the strength she will need to make it through. I can almost hear her calling out to God each time I look at this portrait.
But I see more. I see uncertainty. I see humility. I see a loneliness. I see a reliance on something greater than is in her. I see strength. I see courage, and I ask myself this: If it were me, would I fight like she has? Or, would I crumble?
Junella has chosen to fight, but her fight has been like none other.
Believe it or not, Junella is no stranger to cancer. She has faced this horrible disease four times in the past 15 years. Her first bought with cancer came in 1994 - uterine cancer. She faced a full hysterectomy and went through 12 chemo treatments. She was in remission for 5 years.
In 1999 she was diagnosed with liver cancer. After 24 chemo treatments and 12 radiation treatments Junella was blessed with another 6 years in remission.
Next was colon cancer in 2006. She faced another 24 chemo and radiation treatments. Once again, she battled cancer and won. She went into remission.
Yet, on November 14th, 2008 - just 28 days before she would have celebrated being 2 years cancer free - she was given the news that she had kidney cancer. This time the doctors gave her until March 14th to live.
March 14th came and went. That day she celebrated LIFE with her family.
Unfortunately, this time remission hasn't come. By March she had a softball size tumor attached to her tailbone and the cancer had spread to her bone marrow and lymph nodes. She was too weak for surgery. She has gone through 28 treatments of chemo and radiation. 8 weeks ago she received the news that the cancer had spread to her liver.
Though she is currently in her fourth battle against this deadly disease, Junella continues to live her life in a spirit of victory and joy. She has been asked hundreds of times, "How do you do it?" She answers, "Every day I wake up is a good day! It's another day with my family and another to show the devil, 'I will not be defeated'. I'm not saying I am unrealistic about cancer. I know it kills people, because lots of people I know have lost their fight to cancer; but I'm not giving up 'till I take my last breath, and I hope that it will be no time soon."
What an inspiration! She's a hero in my book!
Now for the pictures!
But first a little background:
We held our session at 7:00 p.m. which was a first for me. Being an available light photographer, I had no choice but to use studio lights for Junella's family session. With just a week's notice - in the middle of the busy holiday season - I had next to no time to learn studio lighting. My friend Anjula graciously stepped in and lent me her studio strobe, power pack, and black back-drop. (She's an angel.)
The little time I had before-hand to practice at home left me nervous and unsure of myself. I prayed for God's help. I was determined to bless this family with some family portraits and time was of the essence. The time was NOW!
I arrived at Junella's home, and was immediately greeted by her youngest son, Sean, who embraced me with a huge bear hug. I knew right then and there that everything was going to be alright. Sean suffers from severe special needs. Yet, he didn't hesitate in making me - a stranger - feel welcome. If only all people I meet were as unconditionally open and loving. What a blessing this boy is to his parents and his siblings.
Junella and her husband Randy have been married for 13 years and have four children together - Jennifer (21), Nick (18), Stephanie (17), and Sean (15). What an honor to spend an evening with this lively, loving family. I pray these photos capture the special relationship each of these children have with their mother and that they will bring joy to this family for a long time to come.
Keep up the good fight, Junella. You are in my prayers and have been such an inspiration to me personally.
Happy New Year!