Families using photography to ease pain of childhood cancer

It's a beautiful spring weekend and the Dahmen house is bursting with silly, carefree memories. They're the kind you'd want to capture forever in photographs. But if you zoom in a little, you'll see this is far from a picture perfect day. Today the Dahmens are trying desperately to escape their reality and the life-changing news they're about to receive. Jill Dahmen looks at her husband Kurt and says, "Well already just sitting here right now my stomach starts to turn."

In a few days Jilly and Kurt Dahmen will find out if their 8-year-old son Griffin is cancer-free. A year long, aggressive chemo battle is officially over. Griffin's body is now fighting on its own. Griffin's father Kurt says, "The anxiety is almost worse now. You don't have that safety net of being in the hospital room."

In late 2014, out of the blue, Griffin experienced excruciating leg pain. Within weeks he was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a life-threatening, painful bone cancer. Try explaining that to an 8-year old. Jill says, "When you ask if he was present. He was definitely present. I remember conversations where he straight up just said, 'what if I die'. You can't say to your child, 'you're not gonna' because he knows.'"

The Dahmens would spend most of 2015 here at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's hospital. Kurt says their days and nights were ruled by medication. "He had to get injections every day in his belly. He had to take this medicine on Mondays and Tuesdays which he could hardly keep down."

Not to mention the poison, otherwise known as chemo, administered through a gaping hole in Griffin's chest. Jill says,"We would literally have to hold the child down, Kurt on one side, I on the other my dad on his feet and he is going nuts. He's terrified."

They're moments you wouldn't think you'd want to remember. They are moments you'd never dream of capturing in a photograph which is why what happened next is so amazing. Kurt says, "He said we're picking four families. So just take the camera and start taking pictures whenever you can."

Just weeks into treatment at Children's Hospital, the Dahmens met photographer Jim Bovin. "Everyone here at the children's hospital has a story to tell."

Over the years, Jim has captured some of the most personal moments to ever develop between these walls. So when the hospital's integrative medicine team asked him to enlist (and teach) a handful of families to use photography as part of their therapy, Jim was all in. Jim, "To me it's everything. It's that whole entire journey that they're going through. Good or bad. Document it. Pick up the camera, even if it's for two seconds. Snap that photo, drop back, put that photo or the camera down and go on."

Doctor Lynn Gershan leads the hospital's integrative, or alternative, therapy, department. "One of the things about creative arts therapy is it leaves something behind. So people have a chance to experience personal expression but then they have something tangible at the end."

Skeptics at first, the Dahmens and five other families ultimately agreed to put down their guard and pick up a camera. Jill says, "It was a good reason to take a picture. Well we agreed to do this. We agreed to. We told them we would do it so doggone it we better do it."

For nine months, the families pushed their emotions and captured nearly 7,000 images. Each family used the images to heal in a different way. Some, like the Dahmens, taking photos to ease them through the pain. Others were trying desperately to hold onto every moment. Jim says, "We had one child that did pass away last December. And that was.. it was gut-wrenching. It was heart breaking."

As each of these photos was taken, Anton Delgado's family knew any one of them could be his last. They welcomed the opportunity to celebrate their spirited 5-year old fighter. Jim recalls, "Toward the end of Anton's life I walked into the room and I had my camera gear and I wasn't ready to take those photos for them. But Vanessa (laughs) she's like, go ahead, take as many photos as you want. It's almost as if you have to get back into that professional realm, like that fine line of OK I was just asked to do my job and I'm gonna do it. You swallow all that back in. And we did it. We walked away from the room and I just let it go. I'm like I can't believe this just happened. And about 5-6 days later, Anton passed away."

Jill says, "It's a part of us and a part of those people forever." For the Dahmens, enough time has passed that can reflect on their journey. They now see what they captured during their year in the hospital was profound. Kurt says, "Jill took a black and white of him and it was just one day he was sitting in bed and he just was sick and he was like this."

Sometimes they documented painfully raw moments. Jill says, "They were saying goodbye and she was being so gentle with him and his hand was so weak holding onto hers. "I wouldn't have done that. I promise you we wouldn't have taken that picture." Jim adds, "If you really take a close look at that photo, Griffin has a teardrop just sitting perfectly on his eye. I look at that photo and it's just pure love between a brother and a sister."

But among the tear drops, bright spots, too. Jill says, "There's one, it's a really bright picture and he's got, he's licking a bright red popsicle and so how different can those be, right? But there he is being goofy licking his bright red Popsicle. "And then the Oreo one I know he just loved that Oreo one. And of course he was in his 'Spidey' jammies and of course you have to brush your teeth because hey guess what kiddo we're not gonna be here forever. You're gonna have to go see that dentist. You can have those moments. Cancer doesn't have to steal everything. I mean it tries really hard. It really does. But it doesn't have to steal everything and it certainly doesn't have to steal joy."

A few days later, the Dahmens are back at Children's Hospital, familiar territory. This time, nervously awaiting the results of Griffin's first scan, post chemo. Several hours later, Griffin's doctor delivers the news in three simple words. "Scans look good."

An 18-month journey, still developing, but heading down the right path. Jill says, "We didn't know what the outcome was gonna be and honestly we still don't know what the outcome is gonna be. But really, does anybody know what their outcome is gonna be?"

Because even when life isn't picture perfect, we can always choose where to focus. Jill says, "So just because you have cancer as part of your story that doesn't mean you are excluded from any hope or joy. You can still have that. Yes."

If you'd like to follow Griffin's story, his CaringBridge page is www.caringbridge.org/visit/griffindahmen and his Facebook page is "NO FEAR Griffin". And if you'd like to help in the search for a cure for childhood cancer, the Dahmen family encourages you to donate to the Children's Cancer Research Fund.