Photographer Documents the Final Years of a Breast Cancer Battle

Photographer Angelica Edwards took on the emotionally difficult task of documenting the final two years of a woman’s losing battle with stage four breast cancer.

Edwards, now a photojournalist, wasn’t exposed to the trade until she got into college as a journalism major. Soon after she took her first photojournalism course in 2019, she quickly fell in love with visual storytelling and hasn’t looked back since.

It was out of pure coincidence that Edwards met Nunny Reece, a 41-year old mother with stage four metastatic breast cancer (MBC) and the central figure of Edwards’s future documentary project. At the time, Edwards photographed Reece for a photo assignment for The Daily Tar Heel newspaper. During the assignment, they both quickly built rapport, which led Edwards to consider photographing Reece again.

Treatment options for cancer are limited in Hope Mills. Nunny Reece must be driven to Chapel Hill or Durham to get CT scans, chemotherapy, blood drawn, radiation, and more. Depending on traffic, the drive can take two to four hours. “It’s not just for older women anymore,” Reece said. “Most everybody I know now that have breast cancer is my age… especially in the Black community.”

“I didn’t want to make an impulsive decision about doing a photo story with her,” says Edwards. “There were logistical challenges: she lived two hours away, I was a full-time student, and I had a job. There was also the unshakable truth that she was dying from an incurable disease. I had to make sure I could handle the emotions that went along with that.”

Nunny Reece lays back during chemotherapy while her husband, Scott, waits at the N.C. Cancer Hospital. When Nunny and Scott were informed by a doctor about her diagnosis, “the first thing Scott asked was, is she gonna die,” Nunny said. “And, you know, he sat there and cried and I sat there and cried, and you have these two young people and this doctor sitting there with tears in her eyes.”

A few weeks later, Edwards bit the bullet and decided that she wants to take on the story. At the very least, she wanted to approach Reece with the idea because she didn’t want to miss out on telling a powerful story that could make a difference.

Reece excitedly agreed and let Edwards into her family’s life, giving her as much access as she needed. Edwards tells PetaPixel that Reece wanted her son Ryan, who was 10 at the time, to have the photos so he could understand more about what his mother had gone through when she was no longer here. Just as importantly, Reece also wanted to share her story to raise awareness about MBC, especially in women of color.

Nunny Reece waits to be seen at the UNC Hospitals Hillsborough Campus in Hillsborough, N.C. “Treatment haven’t really been that good,” Nunny said. “The longest I’ve been stable for is six months.”

Both established boundaries prior to embarking on this journey, but Edwards was quickly given access to intimate moments of Reece’s life which was photographed between October 2019 and February 2021.

It wasn’t an easy task for Edwards — there were highs and lows, especially as the pandemic brought upon difficulties of limited access to Reece at the hospital. Edwards made up for this when the world slowly opened back up and COVID-19 testing became available.

Nunny Reece, 42, grasps the hands of her aunt, Tina Foster (left), and a group of her “prayer warriors” at her home in Hope Mills, N.C., shortly after conveying the news that she has weeks, or possibly months to live because of the progression of her stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Without God, “the depression, the sadness, the pain … all of that would have took over by now,” Reece said.

“It was hard documenting the last months of her life. The image of her praying with her prayer warriors was made shortly after conveying the news that she had weeks or perhaps months to live. That was the first time I felt like she was dying. I knew from the beginning that she had stage four MBC, but she still had treatment options and was optimistic. It really hit that day that she was running out of time. By then, I had known her for over a year. She was my friend.”

Nunny Reece entered in-home hospice care after running out of treatment options and relies on her husband to help her dress, bathe and get up. “You really can’t prepare for the worst,” Nunny said. “Nobody wants to change from being the active mom to the mom who can barely move. Who can’t go to baseball games anymore. [Who sometimes has to] get around in a wheelchair at her doctor’s office.”
During the final moments of Reece’s life, she struggled to communicate with Edwards while in the hospice. However, both had already had conversations about hospice and funeral arrangements beforehand which made Edwards feel more comfortable documenting this sensitive situation.

Nunny Reece, 42, falls asleep while in at-home hospice care in her home in Hope Mills, N.C. Nunny struggles with staying awake, speaking, and moving about as her cancer has progressed significantly. COVID-19 protocols have resulted in her receiving very few visitors during her hospice care.
Nunny Reece’s oldest sons, Tylan (left) and Tavon (right) pay their respects to their mother. Nunny died on Feb. 1, 2021 — nine days before her 43rd birthday. Her funeral service embodied what she loved: God, her family and the color purple. The home-going service was preplanned. Nunny picked out the worship songs, speakers and decorations she wanted before she died.
Scott and Nunny Reece shared two decades, three kids and a life together. Before her death, Nunny prewrote letters to her husband and children, which included advice for major life events such as graduation and raising their future children. For Scott, she wished him to “move forward with life and to be able to enjoy life … because he has spent so much time taking care of me.”

Although the journey took an emotional toll on Edwards, it was equally as rewarding and there were moments where Reece was able to have fun and enjoy her life outside of the hospital, such as her wedding and casual outings.

In 2000, the Reeces married in a courthouse and promised to renew their vows. Two decades and three kids later, Scott proposed to Nunny at her 40th birthday party, after her stage 4 cancer diagnosis. “People when they know they’re gonna die, they have like a, what they call a bucket list,” Nunny said. “And I have what I call is a live-love-life list because I still continue to live.”
Nunny Reece picks out her wedding dress with her bridesmaids. Reece felt relieved to find her perfect dress because of concerns of swelling as a result of her steroid treatment. “As soon as I put it on, my eyes lit up,” Nunny said. “And I just knew that dress was for me … and it was really, really beautiful.”
Nunny Reece spent the night with her best friends in a hotel where they ate food, laughed, and prepared for her big day. “They are the two that you know will stay with me in the hospital, call on a weekly basis to see how I’m doing,” Nunny said. “Having that girl time … it’s good to have that.”
Nunny Reece gets dressed shortly before renewing her vows. “I was able to have … the wedding of my dream,” Nunny said. “It was better than what I thought. I mean my dress, the decoration, everything was purple like I love.”
Nunny and Scott Reece celebrate after renewing their vows on Feb. 8, 2020, fulfilling Nunny’s dream of having a big wedding. “I just wanted to remind him … that I take my vows seriously, too. I think he wanted to show me that he’s not just my caregiver,” Nunny said.
Nunny Reece hugs her son Ryan after renewing her vows. “That little boy, he just makes it known that he is all about his mom. And he loves his mom. He needs me here. And he wants me here.”

This experience confirmed Edwards’s dedication to visual storytelling and gave her confidence in her skills to tell important and difficult stories. Although she is uncertain what the future holds for herself and her career direction, the story of the final moments of Reece’s life has shown her the power of long-term, human-centered storytelling.

“I hope people look at this story and feel like they knew Nunny. I hope they get a sense of her spirit and how loved she was. Hopefully, it encourages people going through medical hardships and their families. It also serves as a reminder about the disparities within healthcare and how far the cancer research has to come.”

More of Edwards’s work can be viewed on her website and Instagram.

Image credits: All images by Angelica Edwards and used with permission.