Melbourne, Florida Family Portrait Session
In May of 2016 I decided to do a “Mommy-and-Me” mini portrait session giveaway in honor of Mother’s Day and all of the incredible moms who follow my work on Facebook. I thought that it would be nice to give back to my followers, so many of whom are amazing mothers. I imagined adorable kids and a beautiful young mother playing at sunset. What I didn’t anticipate was just how much the experience would inspire me. This session would be different.
Immediately I began to notice one name being tagged and commented and shared again and again: Laurie Milam. As more people and more women nominated Laurie her story began to unfold piece by piece right there on the “Mommy-and-Me Giveaway” post. Words like “brave”, “strong”, “loving”, and finally, “Leukemia.” I received private messages full of praise for her and got the sense that this was going to be something more than simply another mommy-and-me session.
As the days passed the trend continued until it was time to announce the winner and, by a landslide, it was Laurie Milam. I soon learned more information and understood immediately why she had been nominated as an outstanding mother. Laurie is a young and beautiful woman who is not only raising two amazing boys, but is also helping one of them to fight a lifelong battle with childhood cancer.
We carefully planned the tiniest details to make her vision for her images come to life. She wanted an outdoor feeling, somewhere green, a down-to-Earth vibe, both bohemian and boyish at the same time, with golden light and a sweet little teepee. It was so important to me to capture this moment in time for Laurie and her boys. For me, some portrait sessions turn into missions. I was on a mission to make something special happen for this family, if only to distract them from the realities of testing and treatments and procedures and results and medications. I needed to freeze childhood and convey the sense of spirit that this family has.
Sometimes things just seem as though they are meant to be, and not only did my giveaway lead me to the Milam family, but we wrapped up our shooting just in time for the start of September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. What better way to give a face to the fight against Leukemia than to share images of this beautiful family who have been through so much together? Listening to her story as we planned the portrait session has been heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. I hope that hearing Laurie talk about life with Leukemia in her own words will shed light on the struggle that this family, and so many others, face every single day.
So, here is to amazing little Travis and many, many healthy and happy years ahead for the Miliam family.
Your friend on the other side of the camera,
Time Stands Still
Travis is 8 years old. He is athletic and energetic. He is strong but sensitive. He is smart and full of life. He also has cancer. Travis was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) on July 22, 2015. He has been battling the disease for over a year.
Laurie says that she has always prayed for God to watch over her babies, but says that after the diagnosis her prayers turned to begging. She could not imagine the thought of losing a child. It isn't natural to lose a child. It goes against every ounce of your being as a mother. She remembers being unable to breathe. So many emotions were running through her mind. She was frantic, but she felt a sense of numbness despite the excruciating pain of the first days. One minute she was sad, then mad, then scared. She had moments of denial in which she prayed that the doctors had somehow gotten it terribly wrong. As they received the treatment plan she couldn't imagine how they would survive the road ahead of them. It seemed inconceivable that this was their new normal. This could never be normal.
As days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months Laurie says that she has learned to expect the unexpected. She is able to reflect now on the process of watching as good friends became strangers and strangers became good friends. One bond in particular that has helped has been the immediate bond that she has found in other families who have a child battling a form of childhood cancer. She feels that she is in a sort of club that no one ever wants to be part of but that brings her comfort. Those with children who are battling cancer truly get it. They share an unspoken understanding that others can't comprehend.
Laurie has since learned to “see the message in the mess.” She is making a conscious choice to find inspiration in Travis’s situation, rather than let it destroy their hope. In moving forward, she credits her amazing support system and God. It hasn’t been an easy adjustment, but Laurie has learned to accept the help that she is offered from family, friends, and even complete strangers. Although many people do not understand the daily struggle of caring for a child with cancer, Laurie feels that she has been lucky to have strong support and realizes that not all families have that. She is so thankful for her “core” group of supporters.
The cancer diagnosis isn’t only difficult for Laurie as a mother, but it impacts Tony, Travis’s older brother, too. Siblings often suffer after the diagnosis because suddenly attention is completely focused on the sick child. Siblings of children with cancer can feel left out, resentful, alienated and forgotten. Laurie says that this worried her and she vowed that she would do everything that she could to make sure that they stayed together as a family unit. Tony Mark is an amazing big brother, and at only 10 years old he has to deal with the extra attention given to Travis, the time that Travis has off of school, and understanding when Travis receives gifts and has events held as fundraisers. Laurie and her husband Tony make a special point of trying to spend individual time with Tony Mark to make sure that he doesn’t feel ignored. Tony has become braver for his brother and stepped up in so many ways. Before the diagnosis Tony Mark was scared of needles to the point of fainting, but now he is always there to support Travis as he has his lumbar punctures (which are a frequent reality for those with ALL) and pushes his wheelchair back to the car each time. Statistics show that the rate at which families split up after a childhood cancer diagnosis is alarming, and Laurie refuses to let the stress of living with cancer tear her family apart. As a team they insist on making the best of the hand that they have been dealt together.
Laurie and her husband, Tony, met in 1998. Tony Mark was born in 2005 and Travis Michael was born in 2007. Laurie was attending school to become a dental hygienist. Life was amazing, and the two were engaged on New Year's Eve 2014. Little did they know that the following July would bring such horrible news. Wedding plans were put on hold and Laurie left school to take care of Travis.
Laurie loves Tony for being her rock. When she falls apart, he picks up the pieces. He works hard running his own stucco business, Space Coast Stucco, so that Laurie can stay home to be there for Travis, who missed almost an entire year of school after diagnosis. Tony arranges his schedule to attend treatments with Travis, which is a benefit of owning your own business. Laurie considers her hard working husband to be one of her biggest blessings and credits their strong faith with helping them to get through each obstacle they have faced.
Laurie wishes, however, that more people understood how devastating childhood cancers can be, and the way that it robs families of the normalcy that they once had. Simply put, she says it is the worst thing in the world.
Laurie feels as though she has grown through this experience, and admits that she is not the same person that she was before she received the news. Laurie says, “I have seen and know too much. I can’t just turn a blind eye. I don’t care about the little things anymore. I used to worry about my hair and makeup looking perfect. Now, I enjoy life. I get dirty. I do things I normally wouldn’t do. You only get one life. Cancer has taught me to live and love more fully. It is messed up. The worst things in your life can bring the best things if you let them. It is a choice. We are choosing the make the best of each day. I still cry every single day. I am thankful and sad, anxious, strong and weak, all at the same time.”
Laurie encourages families who are going through the same struggle to find God and to let people in. Surround yourself with supporting, loving and understanding people. She emphasizes the importance of taking help from others when it is offered and reminds other parents that cancer isn’t a journey that you are meant to walk alone.
The road ahead is long and will not be without obstacles for the Milam family. Leukemia, and specifically ALL, has an 80% cure rate as long as a patient doesn’t relapse. The possibility of relapse is something that terrifies Laurie, but it isn’t the only concern. Chemotherapy, which has been used to treat Travis, is a drug that is well known to cause health problems over time. The cruel truth is that not only do children have to survive the cancer itself, but that they then have to survive the myriad of side effects of the medications used in treatment such as secondary cancers, infertility, and learning difficulties.
Looking forward, Laurie wants to continue to use her story to get the word out to others about childhood cancers and the statistics that surround them. September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and the color for the month is gold. Laurie wishes that more people participated to raise awareness as they do with other forms of cancer, such as Breast Cancer Awareness in the month of October. Children with cancer deserve our support and the lack of funding for research is infuriating for families who are clinging to hope for a medical miracle.
The Milam family and their friends, as well as Tamsin Photography, ask that you find a small way to “Go Gold” in the month of September to raise awareness and, specifically, to show your support for Travis as he continues to fight against Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
Please take a moment share this post to raise awareness for ALL and other childhood cancers and comment below with a message for this family who continue to fight a long battle with grace and courage!