Lora Scantling is a professional photographer who has long documented happy moments of birth, graduations and weddings. Then several years ago, her stepfather was dying of lung cancer, and her close friend's 1-year-old son died of cancer.
She tried to be supportive but felt helpless. Then she realized she had a skill she could put to use in the sadness. Which is why Scantling sent out a call on Facebook five years ago, offering to do a free photo shoot in her Oklahoma studio for children with cancer.
She would dress up the children and make them feel beautiful. Then turn her lens to their sweet faces while they were still on Earth.
"I wanted to do something powerful and emotional," Scantling said.
Three families from nearby Oklahoma towns responded. On the appointed afternoon, the girls showed up at Scantling's studio in Yukon, Oklahoma, accompanied by their mothers. They were Rheann Franklin, then 6, who had a rare form of brain cancer; Ainsley Peters, then 4, who was being treated for leukemia; and Rylie Hughey, who was 3 and suffering from kidney cancer. Each of the girls had spent years in and out of hospitals and had lost their hair to chemotherapy treatments.
The girls had never met before, but they quickly became friends and were soon giggling and posing for photos. They enjoyed a fun day in the studio being in the spotlight for something other than their illnesses.
"Watching them interact was so sweet and inspiring," Scantling said. "They stole my heart."
That spring the girls began stealing thousands of other hearts as well.
Scantling gave the families the photos and also posted one on Facebook, saying, "let me tell you about these three amazing little fighters!" It showed the girls closely hugging each other in pearls and lacy dresses, eyes closed, their bald heads adorned in frilly headbands.
The photos touched a nerve as people who did not know them became concerned for their health and in awe of their strength and beauty. In the first days the photo was posted, it received thousands of likes and comments.
Then there was much social media celebration later that year when all three girls miraculously were declared cancer-free. People wanted more of these lovely girls who had beaten the odds. And the girls and their families were game for it.
So Scantling has made the photo shoot of the trio an annual event.
Last month, for the fifth anniversary of that inspirational photo, the girls gathered to pose with a new friend who has joined them the last two years: Connor Lloyd, 4, who is currently being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
"I added Connor, because it's important to remind people that even though the three girls are now cancer-free, there are still kids being diagnosed every day," said Scantling, 35.
In the aftermath of the first photo, as it was shared widely on social media, Scantling began hearing from other parents in Oklahoma whose children had also been diagnosed with cancer. She offered to photograph them as well. Since then, dozens of children with cancer have posed in her studio.
"It's important to their parents — nobody wants their child to be forgotten," she said.
She did not realize the power of such photos, in fact, until she posted the original one five years ago.
"I had no idea about the impact it would have," she said. "I still get heartwarming messages from people who come across the photo online. They tell me it's helped them or someone they know through a dark time in their lives."
Children and adults with cancer write to her to say her annual photos of the girls (and now Connor) give them hope to keep fighting, said Scantling, a professional photographer for 11 years with two daughters, both healthy.
"They say, "If these kids can fight cancer, then so can I,'" she said. "I'm asked every spring, 'When will the new photo be ready?'"
Her photo subjects and their parents are always eager to participate in the annual ritual.
"Lora's images capture a quick image of peaceful children who have battled like warriors," said Andrea Peters, Ainsley's mother, who lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma. "It's an honor to be a small part of spreading awareness to help other families."
This year, to honor nine of those children who have died — "fallen fighters," she calls them — Scantling photographed Connor and the three girls holding portraits of the children, in addition to their usual poses.
"I may not have a child with cancer, but if I did, I would want somebody to fight for them," she said. "That's why I do this. I absolutely love doing it. It warms my heart, and I fall in love with the kids and their parents."
The feeling is mutual, said Bridget Hughey, Riley's mom, of Chandler, Oklahoma.
"Lora has earned many jewels in her crown for the hope and happiness she has brought everyone," Hughey said. "Even though Riley won her battle with cancer, there are parents all over the world going through the same thing with their child."
Valerie Franklin, mother of Rheann from the original photo shoot, said she wants to help prevent other families from going through what hers has.
"Our hope with the pictures is that they'll help people to start talking about cancer and find a cure for all children," said Franklin, of Norman, Oklahoma.
Although Franklin's daughter is now cancer-free, she will never grow hair because of the intense radiation she needed on her skull to shrink her brain tumor, her mom said.
"Even so, Rheann is always happy and smiling, and for every photo shoot, she shows up with goodies to share with her friends," Scantling said.
Even Connor, who will need chemotherapy for his leukemia until 2021, is responding positively to treatment, said his father, Neil Lloyd, of Oklahoma City.
"So far, he's had 49 rounds of chemo, along with countless oral chemo treatments and other drugs at home," Lloyd said. "We felt that Connor joining the shoot last year (and this year) would help show that childhood cancer is not as rare as people may believe."
For Scantling, that realization is what motivates her to gather Connor and the girls together year after year to hold hands as she captures their smiles.
"My hope is for them to grow up healthy and happy," she said. "I'd like to take photos of them for the rest of their lives."