A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words, and Then Some

What do you see when you look at the famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci? What story do you think lies within and what the heck is she smiling about?

Most of us don’t have hand-painted portraits of ourselves or family members hanging on our walls, but we do have old photos in frames and if you’re like me, boxes and boxes of old photos waiting for organization. 

How many times have you looked through your old photos?

How many times have you zeroed in on ones of yourself and thought wow, maybe I didn’t look as bad as I thought I did back then?

Maybe you were younger. Maybe you were thinner. Maybe your hairstyle looked better, maybe you had more hair. Or maybe you just HAD hair.

Have you ever looked at such old photos and said to yourself, I wish I still looked “that good”? And sometimes the photos don’t even have to be that old!

Recently I was looking at some pre-cancer photos of my family and myself. For me, pre-cancer photos mean the ones taken before my mom’s cancer because cancer started taking its toll immediately after her diagnosis. By the time my diagnosis came, some of the “damage” had already been done because as any cancer care giver will tell you, cancer takes a toll on them too. Sometimes my hubby jokingly reminds me of this, but we both know it’s true and in reality not actually all that funny.

Looking at those pre-cancer photos made we wonder, did we all look differently back then? Did we all look more care-free? Did we look more un-knowing? Did we look more unscathed and innocent? Did we all look younger and I don’t mean just in years?

Or am I just imagining such things? I don’t know the answer.

I do know for sure that since my diagnosis and treatment, I do look a whole lot different. This is obvious when I look at recent photos in which I have no hair, no eyelashes and no color. It’s still true today even with the slow return of such things.

But it’s more than the obvious physical changes I’ve been thinking about when looking at photos these days.

I feel a whole lot differently post cancer, too, and I sometimes wonder if this change is a visible thing. Do I have a different persona all the way around now? Do others perceive me differently? Am I different? Am I forever changed inside and outside

Do I now have the look, “the look of one who has had cancer?”

Is this silly? Is this crazy? Do others have thoughts like these?

I also look at the most recent pre-cancer photos of myself and sometimes wonder about the cancer that was already growing in my body when the photos were taken. I study the photos looking for some outward sign or clue. Shouldn’t there be one? Shouldn’t there be some kind of indication that something was seriously amiss in my body?  

Shouldn’t I have known?

Of course not, yet I keep looking. I keep wondering.

Photos are just photos. Paintings are just paintings. You can’t really tell what’s going on in a person’s life by just looking at a painting of them or by looking at their photo. Still…

Within every painting or photo there is a story, an event or a reason why the artist chose that subject or why that shot was taken on that particular day at that particular moment in time. The story is there even if you can’t see it, just as surely as there’s  a story in that famous smile.

I seem to be looking harder for those stories now days.

How about you?

What do you think about when you see old photos of yourself? 

Do you look for clues about anything in old photos?

What do you think is the story behind that famous smile?

24 thoughts on “A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words, and Then Some

    1. Rachel, Oh my gosh, you do?? I’m so glad you don’t think I’m crazy! Seriously, it is hard to look back at those before photos. It’s just all very strange. Thanks for understanding and for commenting.

  1. Nancy, yes me too – exactly as you describe. When a doctor told me that my tumour could have been there for up to eight years at diagnosis I was constantly re-evaluating myself and thinking, ‘Oh I had breast cancer then and I didn’t even know it.’ That exact same feeling as you looking a ‘pre-cancer’ photos…
    Really interesting reflections… thank you. it’s good to know others feel the same.
    Best, Sarah

    1. Being Sarah, Wow, eight years. It’s incredible to imagine such a possibility. It’s also rather frightening I bet. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about looking at old photos. I knew you’d get it.

  2. My before pictures are quite different, because I dyed my hair Sharon Osbourne red before cancer took it. When it grew back, it came back silver/grey, so I left it. I am metastatic so there really is no “after.” I confess I have looked at myself in a photo on the beaches of Hawaii 2 years before my dx and thought, “Did I have cancer then? Was I starting to die and didn’t know it?” But, ultimately, it doesn’t matter – my main concern is getting them in a scrapbook and out of the boxes! 🙂

    1. Ann, It must be quite a strange feeling looking back at your pre-cancer red-head days. What was your color before you dyed it red? You’re right, ultimately those crazy questions about ‘did I have cancer way back then?’ don’t matter, but still… I think about that. I remember your post about all the photos you have to organize. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in that either. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ann.

  3. Yes,I have had those same thoughts after a life changing event. When my nephew and Godson died, I thought in terms of before Robert died and after Robert died. It seemed everyone and everything changed after that. That was the time I thought caused the biggest change in my life and appearances in pictures. Other deaths have made me feel like that also, but not so much. My cancer didn’t make me feel that way as much.

    1. Betty, You’re right, that was another life-changing event for so many of us. The death of a young person is so unfathomable for so many reasons. I always remember Elizabeth Edwards sayinig compared to losing her son, cancer was a piece of cake and she didn’t fear death. I understand that, at least as much as a person who hasn’t lost a child is capable of. Thanks for your comments.

  4. Nancy,
    I pulled several big boxes of my photos out of storage last month, but haven’t had time to go through them, but I’d give anything to look like the Brenda on my computer. I look at the ones of me before cancer, the ones I didn’t like and think, “I’d give anything to look like her now.” Then there are the ones taken before James died, and I think the same thing. Cancer and grieving really takes it’s toll. I’m sure a day will come when I look at photos of me post-James and think, “I’d give anything to look like her.” Too bad we don’t appreciate ourselves more at the time.


    1. Brenda, Yes, cancer and grieving take a huge toll on a person don’t they? And you’re right, we never appreciate ourselves at ‘the time.’ I remember way back when thinking I was too this or too that and now, well, you know… Good luck sorting through those photos and thanks for commenting.

  5. I look at my photos in the before cancer stage I looked cheerful I was smiling my hair looked great. I have not had a photo taken of me post cancer because I look differently. My face is still puffy my eyelashes are thinner than they were and so is my hair. It sounds like superficial vanity doesn’t it. People want to include me in their photos and I refuse. A family member had taken a photo of me bald and went around showing all her friends what I looked like bald…Maybe after the New Year but for now I rather not have photos. So many ask why I don’t put a pic of me on face book, I just don’t want to…And I really dislike being pressured by well meaning folks.

    1. Alli, I understand exactly where you’re coming from. I think that friend was more than a bit insensitive showing that photo you weren’t comfortable with. I guess you could always put up an old photo on facebook. That’s what I did. Pose for photos again when you’re ready and make no apologies til then. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Alli.

  6. Josh has my 10th grade school photo in his wallet and I look exactly the same, so that’s promising.

    Really, though, I think we all tend to criticize ourselves quite a bit. Either we look at old photos and think, “Oh, God, what was I wearing?” Or we look back and think, “Wow, I looked way skinnier/prettier/younger then.”

    1. Lindsay, Well, that’s pretty funny. Why don’t you give him an updated one? Looking at old photos is fun as long as you don’t criticize yourself too harshly I guess. I tend to look for the story or memory within the photo because there always is one. Thanks for the comment.

  7. There is a framed photo of me and my siblings in my brother’s apartment. It makes me laugh because I am a DD in that photo. Now I am a double zero (and minus some) after my breast deconstruction! What a difference! But, I have to say that I do not look as matronly. At least I get to have that benefit, lol.

  8. Hi Nancy,

    I don’t know how I missed this one from the archives, but I did. This is a great, thought-provoking post, and I’m glad to be reading it now.

    I initially see old photos (usually my mom sends them to me, or they are stored haphazardly in a photo album) with joy. Then sometimes happiness, knowing all the wonderful things that were going to happen to me and, at the same time, sadness because that girly tap dancer would wind up having cancer. Photos that are particularly painful are the ones pre-knowing-I-had-cancer. There I am, with my brother, so happy — and I had a tumor that none of us knew about.

    And, of course, I miss my breasts.

    I’ve thought about painting a self-portrait, but I’m not emotionally ready for it. Even just the face.

    1. Beth, I’m glad you liked it. Sometimes it is fun to dig out these former posts and re share them. I love the new dialogue that can happen. I have changed in so many ways physically that it can get quite disheartening at times, but… whatever. We carry on. I hope you do feel up to doing that self-portrait some day. It might be a very healing undertaking for you. Thanks for commenting, Beth.

  9. Nancy, you are so on target. I look at the pictures just before the cancer and I think I looked at least 10 years younger. My hair was long and wavy, a rich brown that I had begun covering a few streaks of grey. It came back in “50 shades of grey” and is of course short. I feel my skin has aged and there are wrinkles that weren’t there before. My eyelashes and eyebrows are back, but thin and sparse. I have thought of dye, but I just don’t want the chemicals.
    I live in a small town. I used to constantly have former students, ones who hadn’t seen me since elementary school, come up to me in stores to say “hi.” That rarely happens since cancer.

  10. Thank you for the post, Nancy.

    Yes, sometimes there seems to be a carefree element missing in the photos of me but it’s hard to say because I avoided photos before cancer. I don’t like having them taken. I’ve always disliked having them taken. That said, after the events of the last few months, I now just want my kids to remember that I was here.

    My mom on the other hand looks decades older from her battle with breast cancer that started just 8 months ago.

    Hugs to you,

    1. Coffee mommy, Cancer brings with it so many changes physically and emotionally. Sometimes I hardly recognize myself when I look in the mirror and when I look at old photos. I know that possibly sounds vain, but… And I always wonder how much I’ve changed on the inside too. I’m sorry you and your mom now have this cancer bond, but I’m also really glad you’re helping each other through it. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  11. Wow Nancy, I do find myself thinking about the changes in how I looked before I got breast cancer. Reading this has me realizing a vast difference. First because of the chemo and all the weight loss it was all about my hair and that I didn’t look well. Then after my recurrence and losing my breasts (because I had so many failed reconstruction surgeries on a radiated breast), I see the different stages of when I had a surgery that I thought worked and looked OK and then it didn’t. It’s as if I can time where I was and what surgery I was on. Anyway this post really had me face this. I know at some point I need to write about this. I just don’t want to scare people about the process. Great post!

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