National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore travels the world, but last year his own world was shaken — cancer visited his wife and son.
“We try to stay as busy and upbeat as we can,” Sartore said, “and not let our lives be about cancer. It makes you appreciate every day when you are well. None of us have any days to lose.”
His wife, Kathy, had a recurrence of breast cancer. Their son, Cole, then 18, was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin lymphoma.
The good news is that after the startling diagnoses, both have good prognoses. Doctors recently removed Cole's chemotherapy port.
“He is cancer-free now,” his dad said. “Kathy is, too.”
Sartore, a native of Oklahoma who grew up in the Omaha area and lives in Lincoln, paused from his globe-trotting ways and stayed close to home, shooting photos at nearby zoos. He accepted nearby speaking engagements and worked on a book of photos from home, “but the two-month trips in a jungle came to a screeching halt.”
He himself suffered serious illness in 2000 — a flesh-eating parasite from a sand fly bite in the leg while waiting to shoot jaguars in Bolivia. His treatment included chemotherapy.
Last year, Kathy's and Cole's illnesses required chemotherapy, too. The double ordeal deeply affected the husband and father.
“Whether it's cancer or any other life-threatening illness, it makes you stop and think about how you've spent your life,” Sartore said. “It made me think about whether I was a good enough husband or whether I am on the road too much, which I am, of course.”
Kathy, a homemaker, first was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years earlier. She underwent chemo, a lumpectomy and radiation.
In January of last year, doctors found a noninvasive cell tumor in a breast and she decided on a double mastectomy. Joel accompanied her to chemotherapy.
Then in July, a lump was found on Cole's neck. Lightning — in the form of cancer — had struck twice in the same family in the same year.
The parents now focused on their oldest child's treatment. Joel, “grounded for the first time in my career,” said the good side of it was that he got to know his children better, including Ellen, now 16, and Spencer, 9.
“I spent a lot more time with them,” he said. “And for the first time in their lives, they grew to depend on me.”
Cole was sick from August until the end of the year, and he took a light schedule of classes as a freshman in the fall semester at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is taking a full load this semester and will resume flight training in hopes of acquiring a pilot's license.
Looking back at the past year, Joel said: “You spend a lot of time crying, but you realize the odds are pretty good, and you meet a lot of people who have survived for 10 or 20 years, and that cheers you up.”
Because breast cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma are so different, he said, there was no thought given to testing the family for a genetic link.
Just before Thanksgiving, Sartore gave a first-person commentary on “CBS Sunday Morning,” showing photos of Kathy and Cole. He said there has never been a better time to have cancer — treatments are more focused and death rates are beginning to fall. Cancer survivors, he said on CBS, “are all around us.”
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After a year that included a lot of stress, the family will gather Friday with friends and Joel's colleagues at the Omaha Press Club downtown. At 6:30 p.m., he will be roasted and toasted as the latest “face on the barroom floor.” The event is open to the public.
The humorous barbs will poke fun at the internationally known photographer, who always lets people know he is a Nebraskan.
“Wherever I go,” he said, “if I meet someone from Nebraska, there's a real bond — as if we're part of the greatest club in the world.”
A son of John and Sharon Sartore, he grew up in Ralston, where he kept a menagerie in the backyard — pheasants, peacocks, ducks, snakes, frogs, toads and lizards.
While attending Ralston High, he worked at gas stations and a record store, mowed lawns and cleaned aquariums. A 1985 graduate of UNL, Sartore has spent more than 20 years with National Geographic, credited with 33 photo essays.
Sartore, 50, is eight years into a photo project that he says will keep him busy until he is 70.
He calls it “The Photo Ark,” for which he is making pictures of all the species in the zoos and aquariums of the world. He has shot about 2,750 species so far, he said, out of a total of between 6,000 and 7,000 captive species.
Joel Sartore has spent a career making sure his images from around the world are in sharp focus. For much of the past year, his focus has been where he needed it to be — at home, on his family.
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