Mother, son both fighting cancer

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Cheryl Mauthe and her young son, Colin, have both been fighting cancer

Tim Smith documented the family's story, photographing the best and worst of times

CNN  — 

Cheryl Mauthe is hoping that 2015 is the year when good things begin again.

In 2012, her 6-year-old son, Colin, was diagnosed with leukemia. That same year, her father died from ALS. In 2013, her house flooded and the family lost everything in the basement. And in 2014, the single mother of two was diagnosed with breast cancer.

That’s when Tim Smith, a photojournalist for the Brandon Sun in Brandon, Manitoba, asked if he could document the family’s story.

Smith had captured images of Colin during a blood drive at his school in 2012. And now, Cheryl was entering an impossible journey on her own.

Cheryl thought that it wasn’t possible for both her and Colin to make it through cancer alive, but she hoped that her son would be the one to survive. Allowing Smith to take photos would ensure that the family was in photos together – that her children could remember her through the images and know that she fought to beat cancer and be there for them.

Photographer Tim Smith

Smith gained Cheryl’s trust and began to visit regularly. He was there for the appointments, the treatments, the surgeries – and the very worst days after those treatments when Cheryl was in the kind of pain that she can only describe as “bone-melting.”

Colin and Cheryl were both enduring chemotherapy while her daughter, Emily, felt left out because she didn’t have cancer, too.

This surreal moment contributed to what became a new normal for Cheryl and her children, trying to make “cancer” a familiar word in their home rather than a scary one.

“I tried to make sure that we didn’t live in the cancer world,” Cheryl said. “We focused on the little moments and what made us happy: going to the zoo, the fair, birthday parties. It’s hard to find the good when you’re surrounded by tragedy, but when you have two children looking up to you, you forget all of your pain and stress. They deserve the best mom possible, and that’s what I tried to do.”

Cheryl had tried her hardest to make Colin’s leukemia navigable. By using pamphlets from the cancer care center, they had educated the teachers and children in his school about what Colin was enduring – and in turn, he became the school rock star rather than an outcast.

In a rare moment, as her hair, eyelashes and eyebrows began to disappear after the chemotherapy, Cheryl caught herself looking in the mirror and tearing up.

“Mom, you’re still beautiful,” Colin said to his mother.

While Cheryl could keep up a positive face for the kids, it was at night, when she was alone in her room with no one to tell her that everything would be alright, that she feared breaking down. As a single mother, she said, breaking down is one of the hardest things because there’s no one to help pick you back up again.

But Cheryl was surrounded by close friends who didn’t desert her. They cooked meals for her, made sure her lawn was maintained and provided her with infinite encouragement. Even Smith, with his regular presence in their lives, became a positive support system who never lost his optimism.

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    “I find myself surprised at how much can be thrown at one person, or one family, and see them stay so positive through the majority of it all,” Smith said. “On the surface, it seems so devastating. But I found those in-between moments that showed their happiness as a family.”

    Cheryl has fought through moments made difficult by her illness, like getting her kids dressed and ready for school when the slightest pressure on her fingertips made her feel like she was on fire. But a lot of her worry was directed toward Colin and the dangers that his leukemia presented.

    Colin’s friends disinfect their hands before playing with him because his immune system is so compromised. When Cheryl brushes his teeth, they have to be careful with his gums; if Colin’s gums bleed, he could get an infection that could halt his chemotherapy.

    There were days that Cheryl didn’t want Smith and his camera around. In turn, Smith tried to be present, like a fly on the wall, without feeling invasive during such personal moments. This dedication to documenting the family allowed him to glimpse the happier moments as well. And Cheryl is grateful to see those moments frozen in time – bright smiles and laughter amid the tears and tangible pain. Together, the series presents an all-inclusive portrait of strength, love and endurance in the best and worst of times.

    “It’s a huge blessing to see yourself through someone else’s eyes,” she said. “Now, we can step back and look at that year. I’m so proud of who we’ve become. My kids have handled every moment with grace and dignity.”

    Even with all of the pain, 2015 has brought good news to the family: Cheryl has been declared cancer-free, and Colin will hopefully be cleared of his leukemia by October. Both of them will have regular, follow-up appointments to make sure that the cancer doesn’t return – Cheryl is especially at risk. She still has one more reconstructive surgery, but it won’t stop her from returning to work for the first time in a long while.

    She’s working toward a future for her family that establishes yet another new sense of normal – where she can return to work, live with no pain and take her kids on a well-deserved vacation.

    Smith, now like a part of the family, keeps closely in touch with Cheryl and her kids. He hopes to be in the room when Colin is cleared of leukemia. Documenting their story has left an impression on him.

    “You appreciate what you have,” Smith said. “It made me realize that I don’t want to live my whole life through the lens. I want to stop and enjoy life with my family, too.”

    Tim Smith is a photographer based in Brandon, Manitoba. You can follow him on Twitter.