Three young girls stood in front of a camera, posed and the rest was history – the image went viral across the internet because it showed some of cancer’s youngest victims. Four years later, they did the same, and their new photo shared another heartbreaking message with the world.
Photographer Lora Scantling knew too well the pain that cancer could cause. The 33-year-old from Yukon, Oklahoma, had not only seen lung cancer take her stepfather but had a friend whose son succumbed to the disease too.
So in 2014 she decided to put her photography skills to work in a new way by raising awareness for a disease she knew affected her community so deeply. She logged on to Facebook and posted an offer to photograph any three young girls who had received a cancer diagnosis.
She soon had her photo subjects – Rheann, Ainsley and Rylie. The trio had never met before they stepped in front of the camera, but all three had fought different variations of cancer. The eldest, Rheann, was diagnosed with a rare type of brain cancer.
Her mother, Valerie Franklin, told People that her daughter, a Norman, Oklahoma, resident, was “a happy, goofy, fun-loving little girl.” Because of her cancer, her hair would never come back, and her eyes would always droop.
The photo also featured Ainsley from Stillwater, Oklahoma, who loved to act and sing. She had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which affected her bone marrow and blood. This type of cancer spreads swiftly if not treated.
The youngest girl, Riley, had been diagnosed with kidney cancer at just two years old. “The odds were definitely against her,” her mom, Bridget Hughey, said. But the Chandler, Oklahoma, native fought against her diagnosis with a personalized slogan – “Cancer messed with the wrong princess.”
Together, Rheann, Ainsley and Riley posed for Scantling’s photoshoot. Little did the photographer know just how much attention the image would receive. It went viral, shedding light on the many children who fight cancer, just as the photographer intended.
Rheann’s mom said that the photo had achieved its mission. “For people who haven’t experienced it, cancer is hard to understand. But through Scantling’s photos, we’ve been able to share our good days and bad days, and let people see how cancer can affect a ‘normal’ family,” Franklin said.
Riley’s mom felt as though the photo had united the community of families affected by cancer. Hughey said, “If I had to sum up Scantling’s photos in one word, it would be ‘hope.’ It means so much to our family, because when I look at that photo, I know we’re not alone.”
The virality of her first cancer awareness photoshoot brought Scantling back behind the lens in 2017 and 2018. The images taken in 2017 depicted the girls at a truly blissful time, since all three had been deemed free of cancer.
At the time, Scantling said, “They’re inspiring to so many that I’m happy to keep taking photos for the rest of their lives. Besides an annual photo shoot, I’d love to take pictures of their high school graduations, their weddings, all of their biggest milestones. To have them all alive and doing well is wonderful.”
The 2018 photoshoot had a twist though – and it was a personal one for Scantling. Just before snapping the traditional picture of the girls, a friend of the photographer’s delivered some horrible news.
Scantling’s friend, Leah Lloyd, had found out that her three-year-old son, Connor, had acute lymphoblastic leukemia, just like Ainsley used to have. The photographer recalled asking Lloyd if she’d like some new photos of her toddler.
And Lloyd told People that she had said yes right away. Like Scantling, she hoped the images would raise awareness of the disease. “Before our son was diagnosed, we didn’t think this could happen to us. We’re now hoping to increase research,” Lloyd said.
Adding him into the regular photoshoot with the three girls – Rheann, now ten, Ainsley, eight, and Riley, seven – made sense to Scantling, whose mission had always been to shed light on the many children struggling with the disease. “People have kind of forgotten what the original purpose of the picture was for,” she told People.
Connor’s presence shows that the disease continues affecting children, even as others go into remission. “Connor will be in treatment for another three years, and yet he’s always so happy and brave. He’s an inspiration,” Scantling said to People.
The girls welcomed Connor into the mix with open arms – they even performed their own rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” to soothe him before the photoshoot. Hughey added, “They took turns showing off their scars to make him feel more comfortable.”
And, fortunately, the young boy’s prognosis was good, according to Scantling. “Connor is responding well to treatment and is doing much better than anyone expected and we’re hoping that will continue,” the photographer said.
She also said that she and her special photo subjects had become “like family” over the years, and she hoped she could continue taking pictures of them for years to come. “I’ll keep taking this photo every year for as long as they want me to. They’re inspiring to all of us,” she said to People.