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Relearning Photography After Brain Cancer, Shot by Shot


I was a 45-year-old photographer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when my world flipped upside down. In November 2014, I was diagnosed with brain cancer.

It was aggressive and extremely rare, and it grew larger despite the doctor’s attempts with steroids. By mid-December, I was already in the hospital, unable to walk or talk. The tumor was inoperable… until I became non-responsive and my options shrank to surgery or death. The emergency surgery saved me but left me unable to care for myself.

I remember none of this — probably a good thing — and I would spend months in the hospital and the rehab center at the University of New Mexico. After many rounds of chemo, I went into remission. But my chances of lasting more than five years were slim. I needed better medical care, so we moved to Boston. In July of 2016, I had a stem cell transplant and received treatment for my seizures, which are controlled with medication.

While I was still in New Mexico at the rehab center, weeks after the surgery, I remembered that I had an iPhone with a camera. One button. While I was still wobbly, I started shooting everything. Relearning to frame and compose. I relied on tripods, stacks of books, and anything available to help me level the camera because my hands were so shaky.

I went through the triad of recovery: speech therapy, physical therapy (PT), and occupational therapy (OT). The OT helped the most with my motor skills — very necessary for a photographer.

After my rehab was completed, I upgraded to a very simple, easy-to-use Nikon Coolpix. I held it close to my body to steady myself and the fact that it was lightweight was beneficial. When I outgrew that, I again upgraded to a Nikon Coolpix 900. That gave me more options to control the image and improve the clarity.

Finally, when we moved to Boston, I was able to return to my Nikon D700. I read the manual from page one and then started relearning my camera from the first button to the last menu. Last year, I upgraded to the Nikon D810 and am relearning Lightroom again. I’ve watched many YouTube videos throughout the process and I read at least one article about photography every day. When I write blog posts, it cements my learning process also.

For me, photography is therapy. When I get outside with my camera, the world comes alive again. I’m always ready to shoot. We’re happily settled into the North Shore of Boston, and my focus is now capturing the culture, history, and variety of landscapes around me.

I hope this video and article inspire you with your battles, whatever they may be.

About the author: Lane Billings is a photographer and brain cancer survivor based in Boston. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Billings’ work on her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.