Newsroom Features Flashes of Hope for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month

August 30, 2007  |  Posted by Caitlin O'Toole

Changing the Face of Cancer
Volunteers create stunning photography to show children just how beautiful they really are

By Caitlin O'Toole
Published: August 30, 2007

Jordyn, 4, poses for a "Flashes of
Hope" photo.

It’s a rainy day in New York City, and a remarkable photo shoot is underway at the Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Division at NYU Medical Center.

Two little boys are promised doughnuts if they sit still long enough to get their noses powdered. Moms and sisters and dads get touch-ups. A stylist straightens one mother’s hair"she beams.

In the next room, a boy with freshly coifed hair poses for a picture. The photographer asks how old he is, and he coyly holds up four fingers. When his younger brother joins him"half-terrified, half-curious"they hold each other tightly. The boys’ parents are standing by with open arms and reassurance.

“It’s kind of a birthday party atmosphere,” says Allison Clarke, the founder of the nonprofit organization Flashes of Hope. “Moms are having makeovers, little girls are getting lip gloss. Everyone’s having fun. Everyone’s laughing.”

And that’s the whole point.

Clarke launched Flashes of Hope six years ago to change the image of childhood cancer, to give young people battling the disease a new way of looking at themselves.

“These children may be dealing with an awful illness, but they’re still just children,” Clarke says. “Their attitudes are so hopeful, and they’re filled with such courage and spirit. We want the images to reflect that.”

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and for the next four weeks, will highlight some of the thousands of children who have been photographed by Flashes of Hope"and whose bright, beautiful faces show off their dignity and strength, and not the weakness associated with their disease.

Clarke founded the organization when her 20-month-old son Quinn was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and highly malignant cancer. During his treatment, Quinn made friends with another boy, Mandwell, who ultimately lost his battle with the disease. Clarke wondered whether Mandwell’s parents ever had a portrait taken of their 10-year-old son"and then realized she didn’t have one of her own son.

Three weeks later, in August 2001, she founded Flashes of Hope. Today, professional photographers and stylists across the country volunteer their time to visit children’s hospitals and create stunning portraits of young people.

“We photograph the children with their parents, siblings, their favorite nurse or doctor. Then we provide these beautiful packages to them free of charge,” Clarke says. “We do it to help them feel better about their changing appearance"which happens so quickly with a cancer diagnosis"and we also do it to preserve those images forever for those families who sometimes lose their child.”

Acts of Courage

Kaitlin Dempsey was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease two weeks before she started college. She says she was skeptical and timid about the Flashes of Hope photo shoot at first, but when she had her picture taken, she felt beautiful.

“I hope people look at my picture and think I’m still a beautiful girl. They can see through my baldness and through the chubby cheeks and realize that I was completely happy and completely normal,” Dempsey says. “I didn’t let my cancer get in the way of the picture.”

Dr. John Letterio, of the Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, says children with cancer display incredible acts of courage.

“We forget that underneath the surface there are these really strong personalities and wonderful stories,” says Letterio, the hospital’s Division Chief of Hematology/Oncology in the Department of Pediatrics. “And sometimes they can’t tell those stories themselves, but these photos really have a magical way of doing that.”

According to The American Cancer Society, more than 10,400 children"ages 0-14"are diagnosed with cancer every year in this country. But thanks to medical advancements, almost 80% of them survive the disease. Clarke’s son Quinn responded well to his treatment. He is now 8.

Each shoot has innumerable memorable moments, but to Clarke, some children stand out. Jordyn, a 4-year-old girl, wore a different bikini every day for six weeks before her bone marrow transplant.

“She had Mardi Gras beads and a hat on,” Clarke recalls. “She had a little pink boom box that she carried around"and she had different dance routines for all the songs. She was so full of joy that the photographer later told me, ‘I would do this every month if you let me, you only get an opportunity to photograph someone like this once in a lifetime.’”

Jordyn passed away at age 5 of acute myeloid leukemia.

“She taught us so much about how to approach life,” Clarke says. “We learned more from her than she did from us. It was so incredible.”

Karen Carey, a professional photographer based in Philadelphia, says shooting for Flashes of Hope has been one the greatest experiences of her life.

"There is no doubt to me that God is present in the faces of these children. It is my hope that people will see past the sadness of the situation and instead see the beauty and joy, and the glory of the child,” Carey says. “I believe that each child is an Angel, a messenger sent to teach the rest of us all about the fragility and beauty of our own lives.”

‘Look How Strong I Was’

To date, Flashes of Hope has photographed more than 2,500 children throughout the country. Clarke says each child shows a different side to the camera.

“My soft spot is always for the teenagers,” she says. “I love the teenagers. They are so hard, because you are a normal child one day and a week later you are losing your hair and losing weight and you don’t recognize yourself in the mirror.”

She says teenage girls in particular tend to begin the photo shoots very shy, but then when they realize how beautiful they are, they all of a sudden come alive in front of the camera.

“It is so great to see them with their shiny bald heads"even if it is for just 15 minutes"feeling so beautiful,” Clarke adds. “It’s really important for them to see those images of themselves and say, ‘Look how strong I was,’ instead of, ‘Look how weak I was.’”

Kaitlin Dempsey was able to see herself in that light. Now 22, she’s been cancer-free for three years and is going into her senior year of college. She completed her internship with Flashes of Hope in Cleveland.

“I walked in the first day and my picture was hanging up on the wall,” Kaitlin recalls. “And it was a reminder to just be thankful every day.”

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