What My Camera Saw as My Parents Died of Cancer

There is a whole range of feelings that happen with the delivery of bad news. In my case, like many others, knees lock, the heart speeds up and the hairs on my arms get a funny little tingle. My circumstances, however, were a little less expected.

When my dad told my husband and me that he and my mom wanted to come into Manhattan for dinner, I was excited to see them and quickly made a plan for an 8 p.m. dinner at Café Orlin — my favorite for Middle Eastern food. As soon as we sat down, I knew something was very wrong.

My mom had been in and out of breast cancer treatment for 15 years and had been managing and treating the disease like it was no big deal, even though she was just in her 50s. Were they about to tell us that the other shoe had dropped and she was dying? No, this time it was about my dad. He had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. My 28-year-old world shook. We all knew what this meant.

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.

As a photojournalist, I did the only thing I knew: I picked up my camera and documented my parents’ dual cancer treatments for the next 24 months and our lives as they unfolded. From the seven-hour chemotherapy infusions to running errands with Mom according to her to-do lists, I was there with my camera slung across my shoulder.

Starting new rounds of chemotherapy, Howie and Laurel take a quick trip to Florida. Life is about to change dramatically for the Borowick family, and one quick escape from realty was necessary for the mind and body. Naples, Florida. January 2013.

When I look back on the time I spent documenting these complicated months, I don’t immediately remember feeling scared. I remember the pee-your-pants laughter, high-calorie dinners (as per the doctor’s request, of course), the late-night dance parties in my parents’ kitchen and the never-ending conversations over a cup of Chappaqua roast from Susan Lawrence Gourmet Foods and Bea’s Bakery blueberry pie.

In the kitchen, Howie breaks into a bouncing dance to try and get a smile out of his wife, Laurel. They often turned to humor to lighten the heavy mood in the home. Chappaqua, New York. February, 2013.

By confronting what I feared most, using my camera as my shield, I was able to move past the trauma that I anticipated and truly enjoy the time we had left together. Had I hidden away from the reality, I wouldn’t have the beautiful photo of my parents holding hands across the chemo chairs as they received their respective treatments.

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, and their respective tumors are shrinking. What if one got good news and one got bad? Do they celebrate for themselves and mourn for the other? Chappaqua, New York. March 2013.
Having cancer for so long has put death on the radar of both Howie and Laurel Borowick so it’s no surprise that they have begun to plan for their funerals. Anything they could do to make the process easier for their children they would try. Chappaqua, New York. March, 2013.
With all the strength they could muster, Laurel and Howie walked with Nancy, their daughter, down the aisle. Howie’s disease was progressing fast so he cherished each and every moment knowing time was short. Highland, NY. October 2013.
Bracelet identifiers adorn Howie Borowick’s left wrist, including his name, notices that he is a fall risk and a DNR bracelet instructing a Do Not Resuscitate order if and when the situation arises. Greenwich, Connecticut. November, 2013.
Buried in his favorite sports jersey, baseball cap and jeans, Howie Borowick was laid to rest. His life, and his story, was evident in the faces of the hundreds that came out to remember their friend. Mt. Kisco, New York. December 2013.
For her 59th birthday, Laurel Borowick spends the day with Nancy at a ceramics studio. Tumors in her hip and pelvic areas have made it difficult for Laurel to walk so it’s hard for her to do most activities. Briarcliff, New York. March, 2014.
With tumor growing in her liver causing distension and pressure in her stomach, Mom struggled to breathe with ease. An oxygen machine became a permanent fixture in the home and helped her when she felt she needs it. She began using it more and more as her movement and speech became more labored and her health deteriorate.
Her chest rose and fell with long, silent pauses in between. The family watched, telling her that they’d be ok and she could let go. Laurel took her final breath. Chappaqua, NY. December 2014.
During shiva, all eyes are on the Borowick kids, and the community bands together to provide love and support for these “adult orphans” as the rabbi puts it. Focus is also on Marion, center, Laurel’s 87-year-old mother, who has just lost her daughter. Chappaqua, NY. December 2014.
On their wedding day, they vowed to be together, in sickness and in health and until death would they part. Upon death they may have parted, but I believe they are now back together, side-by-side.

Was it scary? Of course. When he died in 2013, my dad, Howie, was 58. My mom, Laurel, was 59 when she died one day shy of the anniversary of my dad’s death. But what was most notable was how those final months were filled with love and life.

Howie and Laurel Borowick at a costume party in the early 1980s.


P.S. Earlier this year, I shared the story of these photos on NPR’s All Things Considered:

I have also published this project as a book, titled The Family Imprint: A Daughter’s Portrait of Love and Loss.


About the author: Nancy Borowick is a humanitarian photographer based on the island of Guam. She is a graduate of the Documentary Photography and Photojournalism program at the International Center of Photography and holds a degree in Anthropology and Photography from Union College. You can find more of her work on her website, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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