Putting childhood cancer in the background

Posted at 12:57 PM, Dec 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-27 13:06:10-05

CINCINNATI -- Emma Pfankuch has been having trouble walking lately due to chemotherapy treatments, but today she’s dancing. 

On this day in early December, the 2-year-old cancer patient is smiling and skipping around the activity center in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s Cancer and Blood Diseases Institute to tunes from “The Little Mermaid” and “Frozen” while photographer Mark Bealer snaps her picture.

Emma Pfankuch, a 2-year-old cancer patient at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, smiles for the camera. Photo provided by Flashes of Hope Cincinnati.

It’s the first time Emma has left her hospital room in four days, and Bealer and Cincinnati Children’s child life specialist Jenna Shields are having a hard time keeping her from being distracted by all the toys in the room.

GALLERY: See heartwarming photos from real Flashes of Hope photoshoots

Shields knows what to do, though. She whips out bubbles, and Pfankuch bursts into a grin and leaps merrily for the dozens of floating spheres.

Bealer lies on the ground to get a better angle and clicks away. He’s photographing Emma for the Cincinnati chapter of Flashes of Hope, a Cleveland-based national nonprofit organization that uses professional photographers to take pictures of children with cancer or other life-limiting diseases and gives families prints of the pictures, as well as digital reproduction rights, free of charge.

A gift of pictures

Allison Clarke, who founded Flashes of Hope in 2001, came up with the idea for the nonprofit when her 2-year-old son was going through chemotherapy treatments for cancer and befriended a fellow patient who later passed away.

Clarke found herself in the Cleveland hospital’s playroom one day wondering if the mom had a photograph of her child.

“Families have no time and no energy,” she said. “Most of them certainly don’t have the resources to pay for professional photography, and, unfortunately for some of these families, it’s going to be the last photograph they have of their child.”

Clarke called a modeling agency and asked if a photographer might want to take photographs of kids with cancer on a voluntary basis. The modeling agency said yes, and three weeks later Clarke attended the first Flashes of Hope photo shoot.

Today, Flashes of Hope photographs 7,000 kids each year in 55 cities across the country, Clarke said. In Cincinnati this year, the local chapter will have photographed a total of 175 kids.

Lauren Hill posed for Flashes of Hope in her prom dress with her dog shortly after her diagnosis in 2014. Photo provided by Flashes of Hope Cincinnati.

A trio of professional photographers – Bealer and Vickie Daniels, co-owners of Studio 66 in Reading, and Helen Adams, owner of Helen Adams Photography in Clifton – teamed up to form the Cincinnati chapter of Flashes of Hope in 2012. 

They use the voluntary services of 23 Cincinnati-based professional photographers to take photos of between seven and nine patients at Cincinnati Children’s each month, except for the month of July, when Flashes of Hope photographers take photos of Cincinnati Children’s patients enjoying a weeklong stay at Camp Joy in Clarksville each year. 

Kids can choose whomever they’d like to be photographed with them, including family members, doctors and nurses, or even service dogs.

Within two weeks of each photo shoot, Flashes of Hope provides pediatric cancer patients and their families with an 8x10 professionally mounted photo of the child, 4x6 prints, and instructions on how to digitally download the pictures for reprints or to share on social media. All of the pictures are in black and white.

“They’re in black and white because everyone looks better in black and white, especially kids with cancer who might experience skin changes or sunken eyes due to chemotherapy,” Clarke said. “Black and white softens a lot of that.”

An opportunity to play

Back in the activity center, Daniels places an Elf on the Shelf on Bealer’s head to entice Emma to look at the camera. Emma is the 154th child the Cincinnati chapter of Flashes of Hope will photograph this year. But Daniels and Bealer aren’t thinking about that.

“The reason we started this chapter is because of the kids,” Bealer said. “No matter how tired, stressed or busy we are, all of that washes away while we bear witness to the struggles of the innocent children who many times live their life in the hospital, away from their home cities and friends.”

Emma was diagnosed with stage-three hepatoblastoma, which means she has a cancerous tumor in her liver that is too large to be shrunk with chemotherapy, after her father noticed a mass in her stomach in early October, said her mother, 33-year-old Amber Pfankuch. To remove the tumor completely and give her a viable liver, Emma recently was added to a waiting list for a liver transplant, which doctors estimate Emma should receive in three to five weeks.

Until then, Emma and her mother are shuttling back and forth between where they live in South Webster – a small town just outside of Portsmouth and roughly two-and-a-half hours east of Cincinnati – every time Emma comes down with a fever or needs another round of chemotherapy.

Emma and her mom have stayed at Cincinnati Children’s three times already since October. Each time, Emma has been confined to her room in isolation because her of her compromised immune system. The first time they stayed after Emma’s initial diagnosis lasted a consecutive 34 days. Today, they’re in the middle of their fourth stay, which so far has lasted four days.

“We haven’t been out of the room since Emma was admitted on Sunday,” Pfankuch said. “I thought it was a good opportunity for her to get out and play. Some of the those things that around this time of year we’d normally be doing, like going to see Santa and getting her picture taken with Santa, are things that aren’t an option for us. To have someone come in and photograph us, and for us not to have to do anything, who wouldn’t want that? And she’s obviously having a good time.”

Memories to keep

Local stylists volunteer their time to do hair and makeup for patients and their family members before each Flashes of Hope shoot. Today, students from Paul Mitchell The School Cincinnati in Sharonville styled Pfankuch’s hair and makeup and then applied pink lip gloss to Emma.

Two-year-old Emma Pfankuch, a cancer patient at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, poses with her grandfather, J.D. Huffman, whom she calls “Paps,” and her mother, Amber Pfankuch, for Mark Bealer, co-director of the Cincinnati chapter of Flashes of Hope. Photo provided by Flashes of Hope Cincinnati.

“Once a month, our students volunteer their time and learn about giving back through their trade,” said Christina Matthews, admissions leader at Paul Mitchell The School Cincinnati, adding that the students began volunteering alongside Flashes of Hope at the beginning of 2014. 

Clarke, whose son survived cancer and is now 16, said the combination of the photos along with the birthday-party atmosphere of the shoot gives families going through what’s often the hardest time of their life a two-fold gift. 

“We receive so many letters and e-mails from people talking about how their Flashes of Hope picture is hanging above the fireplace, that it’s the most cherished possession in their house,” she said. “Some people might think what we do is sad or depressing. Why would anyone want pictures of such a sad time? What they have to remember, though, is that no matter what, your child is still your beautiful child, and an even more beautiful child because you feel lucky every day that you have with them. There are moments and memories that become part of you in a good way.”

In addition to taking photos of pediatric cancer patients, Flashes of Hope also raises money for pediatric cancer research. To learn more about Flashes of Hope, visit