Photographer focuses on hope in pictures that bring the dreams of childhood cancer patients to life
SALT LAKE CITY — Ellie Porter had never seen so many treats in one place.
It definitely beat the view she'd had off and on from her hospital room where she received treatment for a rare form of kidney cancer since it was discovered last May. The piles and plates of doughnuts, cakes, cupcakes, pies and biscuits covered the countertop — and they were supposedly all baked by her.
"It makes me happy to see her happy," said Ellie's mother, Jami Porter, of Kaysville.
Ellie's wish of becoming a baker might have been make-believe, but it wasn't apparent on her sweet, 6-year-old face.
In a pink, polka-dotted apron and crisp, white chef's hat, Ellie kneaded dough, tossed flour and dripped frosting on the floor like a pro.
It was all part of the setup, made possible by Jonathan Diaz, an East Millcreek lawyer by day and professional photographer by night. After years as a fashion photographer, Diaz decided he wanted his work to mean something more.
"I can't turn someone into a real fairy. I can't let them fly on a dragon. But it is possible to allude to that as a photographer," he said. "I have a passion for photography and I want to use that passion to make a difference in these kids' lives."
He's hoping the photographs, as elaborate as they may be, will catch the eyes of the public, turning them to the important topic of cancer research, specifically for children.
"Children don't have a voice. They don't have anyone but their parents to stand up for them and fight for them, and, a lot of times, by the time you've been through months of treatment, living in a hospital room with your child, you're exhausted," said Amanda Flamm, whose daughter Millie died from leukemia last year.
The Flamm family was overwhelmed with support from family and friends and, in the end, helped create Millie's Princess Foundation, which provides financial support for families that suffer because of childhood cancer. It also aims to bring awareness to childhood cancer and hope to families that get the unexpected and "life-changing" diagnosis, Flamm said.
The foundation also gives Diaz something to rally for.
Photos of at least 25 local cancer patients — in the midst of their wildest dreams — along with short stories about their experiences with cancer, will be published in a book, the title yet to be determined. Diaz says all the work going into the effort is donated and any proceeds will go straight to the foundation.
"Childhood cancer is horrible and it sucks and it is awful, but these kids have hope," he said. "We have to show that hope to others and get them thinking about it."
And while he's having a lot of fun with the process, Diaz said, the best part is the journey his subjects get to take.
Ellie has been in remission since December.
"She's feeling good and she's really being able to live again," Jami Porter said. "She can do what a normal 6-year-old does and that makes me happy to see."
And while it took a second or two for Ellie to warm up to the idea that she was a world-class baker, as well as the crowd of people it took to create and capture the scene, she was visibly delighted before long.
"You're doing great," Diaz shouted. "It's perfect."
"I feel like these kids are facing this horrible, pointless disease and if I can make them happy for a day and give them hope and inspiration and show them that anything is possible, then maybe my photography would mean something," he said.
If the happy tears, rosy cheeks and broad smiles on the faces of Ellie's mother, grandmother and great-grandmother (who witnessed Ellie's photo session on Thursday) are any indication of what it means, then Diaz must be doing something right.
In addition to the child getting a chance to be the center of attention during one of Diaz's photo shoots, Flamm said the lighting, makeup and extravagant decoration are fun for the rest of the family, too.
"They've all been through hell. They all need this," she said. Her daughter's fight with cancer included two relapses and lasted four years. Millie died almost a year ago, in June.
A new report released by the American Cancer Society in February states that while a lot of progress has been made in fighting childhood cancers, "there is still a long way to go."
For 2014, the American Cancer Society estimates that 15,780 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed and 1,960 deaths will occur among children and adolescents, from birth to age 19. The report indicates that progress in treating childhood cancers isn't equal on all fronts, or for all types of cancer.
Cancer remains the second leading cause of death in children, the report states.
Funding for cancer is often directed at the types commonly found in adults, specifically breast and prostate or colon cancer. Flamm said it is impossible to say that one is more important than the other, but "while children are still dying and decades-old therapies are still being used to fight childhood cancers, there's a need to raise awareness and to get as many people standing behind us as we can."
The American Cancer Society report indicates a need to further study available cancer treatments and the serious long-term effects they impose on children and adults alike. Children just have longer to survive with any potentially debilitating side effects of treatment.
In addition, unlike many adult cancers, only a relatively small percentage of all childhood cancers have known preventable causes. Also, early detection of childhood cancers is made much more difficult because of the similarity of some symptoms to those of more common childhood diseases, the report states, adding that such underscores the need for additional research.
While many die from intense childhood cancers, more than 379,000 survivors of childhood cancers were alive in the United States as of January 2010, 70 percent of them age 20 or older.
"Finishing the fight will require dedicated focus and attention to ensuring these adults and children don't just survive, they thrive," the report states.
Diaz has children, but none of them have had cancer. He said he "can't imagine having to go through something like this with them."
He puts in countless hours of work on the project after work and on weekends, and, when all the hard work — involving dozens of other people, as well — comes together to make one family happy, or to bring a smile to the face of a seasoned yet so naive cancer survivor, Diaz said he's rejuvenated even more for the next photo shoot.
"I'm one of those people who just dreams as big as possible," Diaz said, adding that the photo book is only the beginning. "I want to bring as much awareness as possible to this horrible, no good disease. And when another kid sees this book, he can find somebody in the book that is in a similar situation as he is and he can gain hope and inspiration from that image."
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: wendyleonards
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