Once upon a time I met this crazy lady named Tammy, who introduced me to some of her amazing friends, and even though I was an idiot and tried to break up with her once she wouldn't let me and even though she probably regrets it sometimes, I am forever grateful for her friendship, support, and positive outlook on life - I think if you looked up "effervescent" in the dictionary her picture might be beside it. She's a photographer now, too. But anyways. One of the ladies in our group of friends received the news that her sister had cancer and within a few weeks she had passed away. There was a discussion about buying her flowers, but flowers die, too, and so we decided to start a team at the Relay for Life in honour of her sister. We Relayed for a couple of years, and of course, I took a crapload of pictures, which I started giving to the Relay people.
My Dad came out to the Relay to visit us. Every year for as long as I can remember, my Dad raised money and shaved his head in honour of my cousin John, who lost a foot to cancer when he was still a kid, and he was so proud of us for doing the Relay - it meant as much to him as it did us. He and my stepmom showed up at some obscene hour of the night with coffee and tunafish sandwiches with dill pickles and cheese cut up in them. My father died of a heart attack shortly after our second Relay, and I knew in my heart that I would be doing it for a very long time. My kids look forward to it every year, too - it's become a part of their lives as much as mine.
In the third year, my Auntie lost her battle with cancer and a friend of mine's 6 year old son was diagnosed with cancer. Stacie felt that the Ride to Conquer Cancer was more in the spirit of her sister, and she has since gone off to run a hugely successful team called the Melan Heads, and around the same time it was asked if I would be willing to formally organize a group of photographers to take team photos. I started bringing my workshoppers to the Relay with me, and that was the official birth of Team Clickin' Cancer's Butt.
In the 4th year, my best friend's Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the 5th year, my Uncle was diagnosed with prostate cancer and my best friend's Mom was declared cancer free. They are both holding strong but I was reminded that life is fragile, and cancer is never far away, which was sent to me like a punch in the face this year several times over. In this, our 6th year, a different Uncle lost his lengthy battle with cancer. A very talented former member of Team Clickin' Cancer's Butt began slaying her own dragon: breast cancer. A very dear friend and colleague of mine's father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. And a workshopper of mine asked me to do some urgent family portraits, because this ugly beast has already stolen a member of their family and haunts them still.
While it would be nice to say we've eradicated cancer and are all retiring, that simply isn't the case. But I'm pleased, in a bittersweet sort of way, to say we've started a trend - photographers across Canada have started bringing their cameras with them and donating their images back to the Canadian Cancer Society. Former Team Clickin' Cancer's Butt members have even gone on to start their own teams in their own towns, and we're slowly pulling ourselves together as a network.
As a photographer, I feel that what I do is both priceless and invaluable. I am invited to some pretty pivotal moments in people's lives - births, weddings, graduations, and other important milestones - as well as asked to document an annual progression of families as they grow and change. The pictures we have after our loved ones leave, whether it's off to college, a new job in a different city, a military assignment overseas, or because they pass away, the value of the photographs that we have become magnified.
So for those of you who don't know much about it, there are several parts to the Relay for Life. It's more than just a bunch of crazy people who come out, rain, shine, or snow (and sometimes in ballet slippers) to walk a track for 12 hours...
The Celebrate ceremony is the first part of the event, during which people who are winning their battle with cancer have the opportunity to provide inspiration and hope.
The second part is the Remember ceremony, during which caregivers, family, and friends light luminaries lining the track in honour of those who have lost or continue to fight their battle with cancer.
The third part is the Fight Back ceremony, during which we acknowledge cancer still doesn't have a cure, and make a pledge to not give up hope.
Imagine, if you will, the following scenarios. A woman is declared cancer free after undergoing something called the Whipple procedure, followed by one kidney and two heart transplants to manage the damage the chemotherapy, meds, and subsequent immunodeficiency infections did to her system. After 3 years cancer free, the cancer returns and she now sits on death row, preparing to leave behind her husband, 7 children, and 3 stepchildren. A young family expecting their second child is robbed of a father because a backache that turns out to be cancer. A 25 year old woman goes to the doctor for what she thinks is a vicious case of bronchitis and goes home with only one lung. A grandfather of 6 dies just days before the birth of grandbaby number 7.
How much do you think a person's photographs together with their loved ones are worth to them?
These are not hypothetical stories. They are in fact stories of people I know. Real people who participate in the Relay for Life. There are so many more - each one as heartbreaking, inspiring, and bittersweet as the next - and during the Relay, THESE are the people we are photographing. Survivors, fighters, caregivers, children, parents, friends... each and every one of their lives irrevocably changed by cancer, which long after you've been declared cancer free or your loved one has died sticks to your shoe like the smell of dog shit long after the shit's been wiped off. It's so easy, when cancer is someone else's problem, to ignore the stench. And then it comes close, close, closer, and takes one of yours and it becomes personal. Very Personally. And those of us who now take it Very Personally convene at the Relay for Life, to Celebrate, Remember, and Fight Back.
We're not heroes - we're just photographers - but the stories we hear, the images of those moments that are so bittersweet, the experiences we share throughout the course of one evening a year knit the fabric of our lives together. Looking back, I doubt any one of us can imagine what a profound effect this event has, and continues to have, on our lives. And so year after year, we show up, cameras in hand, to record it, because it's what we do.
Above is my friend and esteemed colleague Christine Hopaluk at the 2011 Leduc Relay for Life. Some members of the Edmonton Team Clickin' Cancer's Butt totally crashed it, snow and all, to support her team. I'd like you all to check out her story here.
Sadly, it's a story you're entering in the middle - this family's fight is ongoing - but like the folks we meet on the track, the stories we swap connect us to one another.
Please visit the zoomphoto site to view and purchase images from the 2011 Edmonton Relay for Life (all proceeds to the Canadian Cancer Society) and consider registering your own team next year here.
All images in this post are copyrighted to the Canadian Cancer Society.
This year's photographers on Team Clickin' Cancer's Butt:
Ali & Sahar
Me... you're already here :)
Trina & Sons
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.