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Faded Photos and Searching for Cancer Clues

Faded photos and searching for cancer clues.

Have you looked at old photos recently? Have you zeroed in on ones of you and thought wow, I looked better than I thought I did back then, if only I still looked that good.

Throw a cancer diagnosis into the mix and such thoughts might be magnified many times over, am I right?

Maybe you were younger (well, of course you were). Maybe you were thinner. Or heavier in a good way. Maybe your clothes fit better because you still had your original body parts (yeah, I mean breasts). Maybe your hair looked better. Maybe you had more hair. Or maybe you just had hair.

Have you ever looked at your old photos and said to yourself, gosh, I wish I still looked that good?

Yeah, me too.

And sometimes the photos don’t even have to be that old!

Recently, I was sorting through some before-cancer photos, which for me, means the ones taken before my mother’s breast cancer diagnosis because that’s when cancer started taking its toll. By the time my diagnosis came, some of the damage had already been done because as any caregiver will tell you, cancer takes a toll, emotionally and physically, on them too.

Looking through those before-cancer photos made we wonder, did my entire family look different back then?

Did we all look more carefree, more unscathed, more innocent, less worn down?

Did we all look younger? And I don’t mean just in years.

Maybe. Maybe I just imagine that to be so.

I do know that since my diagnosis and treatment, I looked and still look, a whole lot different than in those before-cancer photos. This is obvious when I look at cancer photos (and I didn’t allow that many to be taken) in which I have no hair, no eyelashes and no color, and it’s still true today, even after the return of such things.

And this has nothing to do with normal aging and the passing of years.

It’s more than obvious physical changes.

In some ways, I feel different post cancer, too, and I sometimes wonder if this change is a visible thing. I wonder if I have a different persona all the way around now. I wonder if others perceive me differently. I wonder if I am always the reminder, the reminder of cancer.

Do I have a permanent “look” of one who’s witnessed and experienced cancer?

Or does no one in my circle of face-to-face contacts even give cancer a thought these days?

The latter is probably more likely.

Do you have thoughts and questions like these too?

Sometimes, when I look at the most recent before-cancer photos of myself, I wonder about the cancer that was probably growing in my body when the photos were taken. I study the photos looking for some outward sign or clue of cancer. (Let’s be real, I also study my chest’s former appearance).

Shouldn’t there be one?

Shouldn’t there be some kind of indication that something was seriously amiss in my body?

The featured photo of my mother and me was taken about two months before her metastatic diagnosis and roughly two years before my diagnosis. Things were obviously going on in her body at that time and likely were in mine as well. And yet we did not know.

How could I not have known something so awful was going on inside my own body?

How could my mother not have known the same?

Logically, I realize these thoughts and questions are ridiculous, and yet I keep looking. I keep wondering.

Photos are just photos. You can’t really tell what’s going on in any person’s life, much less inside their body, by just looking at photos. Still…

Faded photos and searching for cancer clues. Was #cancer always our destiny?

Was cancer always our destiny?

Within every photo there is a story, an event or a reason 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 or remember it. And perhaps there are clues to things yet unknown at the time of the photo that we cannot see. Then again, maybe there aren’t.

Regardless, I find myself looking harder for stories and clues in old photos these days.

What about you – do you look for clues too?

What goes through your mind when you look at pre-cancer diagnosis photos?

If applicable, do you believe  cancer was always in your destiny?

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Faded Photographs & Searching for Clues

Leslie Svendsen

Wednesday 6th of April 2022

Hi Nancy, Congratulations on becoming the grandmother of two adorable grand babies. I don't call too many things blessings, but, for me, my two little grandsons are that. Although Mary Oliver isn't everyone's cup of tea, I find her poem 'William' comes very close to describing how I feel about them. Regarding looking at photos, why do we often think we do not look good enough, then look back at them later and realize we were beautiful just the way we were? This could be a theme for another un-needed self help book-Ha! When I look at photos of my mother and myself, we also both have had breast cancer, I don't look for signs. But, when I look at photos of us from the 60's I do think back to the time in our lives when we lived in a neighborhood that routinely sprayed DDT to eradicate mosquitos. I remember its mist raining down on me as I played in our front yard after supper and my mother would be outside working in her beloved flower gardens. I was in elementary school during all those summers and my mother was a young woman in her 30's. I will always wonder, was that when it all started? It makes me angry, but also encourages me to speak out against using unsafe chemicals in our world. I don't want those blessings of mine to be sick from avoidable toxins. I don't want them to wonder when it started. Leslie


Thursday 7th of April 2022

Leslie, Thank you for the congrats! I will have to track down that poem. It's so strange how we look at old photos and realize that we didn't look too bad back then! I guess it's just human nature, and we're always hardest on ourselves. I'm sorry both you and your mom have had breast cancer. I can't help but ask if cancer was always my mother's and my own destiny when I look at old photos of us now. Interesting you bring up the DDT. They used to spray that in my hometown too. Who knows the impact that had on that whole generation. I remember the spray truck driving by. Thank goodness those days are over, but we probably have more chemicals in other places now. Enjoy your grandsons. I sure intend to enjoy mine! Feeling blessed indeed.

Linda C Boberg

Wednesday 6th of April 2022

Ha! We do this thing called "I wonder ..." I always disliked my husband saying, "I wonder who in this sports stadium will die this year." Or get cancer, or whatever. But we still play it. I hate the way I look right now. Actually, while I was NED, I looked the best I'd ever looked. But there's no going back, I'm afraid.


Thursday 7th of April 2022

Linda, Interesting game you and your husband play. My husband and I have played similar ones. I still do it all the time especially when sitting in airports while waiting. I look at women and think about how lucky they are to still have their breasts. Weird I know. I'm not particularly happy about how I look these days either. I guess we're always our harshest critic. Likely others don't notice things about us that you and I do. And you're right. We can't go back. Thank you for sharing.

Beth L. Gainer

Saturday 19th of May 2018


I so relate to this post! I have found photos of me where I had my tumor (sounds weird to say "my tumor," but there it is) growing in me and didn't know. I look at my innocent face and, of course, the breasts that I had been born to have. It boggles my mind and depresses me at this time to look at old photos.

Marie Ennis O'Connor

Sunday 15th of April 2018

Yes, I totally get this Nancy. I have a picture taken a month before my BC diagnosis when I had traveled to the States for a friend's wedding. I look tired and washed out in the picture but I put that down to jet-lag at the time. Now I wonder if I am seeing something more in the picture. At the same time, I am struck as you were, looking at your lovely Mom in that picture, how cancer was already hiding like a hand grenade in our bodies waiting for the moment when it would explode our lives and change them forever.


Monday 16th of April 2018

Marie, Ah yes, cancer was hiding in our bodies like a hand grenade. No kidding. I know it’s not logical at all, but I can’t help but ask, how could we not have known? Thank you for sharing that you've looked for clues in photographs, too.

Nicki Boscia Durlester

Friday 13th of April 2018

Nancy Stordahl, my laptop background is a photograph of my family and beloved springer spaniel the Christmas before I was diagnosed. I can't tell you how many times I have studied that picture looking for hints of what was to come just a few months later. Life is measured in the before and after, a reminder of how fleeting it all is. Thank you for this piece. It really spoke to me.


Friday 13th of April 2018

Nicki, I would love to see that photo. Nice to know I'm not the only one who searches...You are so right, the biggest thing about looking at old photo - they remind us how fleeting it all is. Thank you for sharing your wise words. xo

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