A Photographer’s Intimate Account of Her Mother’s Cancer Ordeal

Nancy Borowick
Nancy Borowick
Recovering from months of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Laurel Borowick rests in her bedroom in Westchester, New York, February 2010.

When her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in 2009, Nancy Borowick, then a student at the International Center of Photography, decided she would document the experience this time around. “Being able to photograph her during the program gave me a chance to spend more time with her than I could have in any other situation,” Borowick, now 26, says. “I really wanted to be along side as she went through all the different stages of treatment and recovery and just experience it with her.”

The photographer has compiled her images to create Dessert First, a photo essay and multimedia project (see the video below) that brings both her parents’ voices to life. “I started to notice her relationship change with my father and I wanted to document that,” says Borowick. “It wasn’t until I saw how he reacted to her situation that I realized things may not have been perfect between them before hand. The cancer diagnosis was a reality check for both of them, and through it, their relationship seemed to grow and strengthen.”

The photographer noticed that existing multimedia projects about breast cancer didn’t typically include male voices. “I never hear from the husband, or the father or the counterpart to the woman who’s going through breast cancer,” Borowick says. “Hearing his voice, hearing his experience, hearing him talk about my mother—they’ve been married over 30 years—I was moved by how he felt about her and how he articulated his emotions and feelings.”

Finding a balance between being a photographer and daughter was a challenge throughout the experience and shaped how the project was photographed. Borowick admits she didn’t photograph her mother in some situations that may have been important to the project because of her familial ties. On one of her visits, Borowick noticed that her mother was exhausted from surgery and decided to set her camera aside. “My impulse was to keep shooting, but the moment I put it down, I was reminded of who this woman was that I was photographing. She wasn’t just my subject—she was my mother and my friend and my life,” she said. “I just felt like I needed to be her daughter.”

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month, and the American Cancer Society reports an estimated 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer will occur among women in the United States this year. About 39,520 of these women will die of the disease. Of those who survive, 10 to 20 percent will develop recurrent breast cancer.

“My mother’s hope was that through this project people would see a real story about a woman with breast cancer, a family going through breast cancer,” Borowick says. “And, maybe in some crazy way, help them as they try and figure out and articulate what they’re experiencing.”

Nancy Borowick is a photographer based in New York. Learn more about Dessert First here.

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