For Karen Walsh, a 40-year-old mom and actress in New York, the first sign of trouble came in the form of a mild cramp under her ribs. “I had a lovely lunch with friends and we actually joked about taking me to the hospital for a cramp,” she recently told TODAY via email. But several days later, in September, she learned she had cancer, and that it had spread from her colon to her liver and lymph nodes.
Still, with this life-altering news, Walsh refused to let the hand she had been dealt drag her down. To help her cope and make the best of her situation, she decided to snap a series of whimsical photos at each of her chemotherapy sessions and post them on Instagram.
“I actually really don’t like getting my photo taken normally,” said the stage 4 cancer patient who recently headed to her 23rd round of chemotherapy. “I do love taking photos and documenting things through photography. I was also scared and I think that prompted me to want documentation for my children, just in case, as dark as that may sound.”
Inspired by some of her favorite films and plays, Walsh, so far, has dressed up to depict characters from "Charlie’s Angels," "Forrest Gump" and "Rocky," to name a few. “It was and continues to be a great diversion for me while sitting in an infusion center,” she said. “It’s fun. Time passes quickly."
And Walsh, who has gotten her friends, family and even Weill Cornell Medical Center’s nurses and doctors to make cameo appearances in the photos, isn’t the only one who has found the process enjoyable.
“Everyone has been pretty excited about it,” she said. “There’s actually a sign-up sheet that’s usually a couple of months out. Some even ‘guiltily’ tell me they look forward to seeing the next photo, which I love.”
While wacky and fun, the photos also have a strong message of "forward motion, joy or strength," she said. "Female empowerment is something I want my children to see as well. I haven’t a clue what my future looks like, though I do like to invite people to my 90th birthday party in the Virgin Islands. I want to leave an imprint that encourages them to envision a world I dream of for them.”
That’s not to say it’s all ups and no downs. “I think it’s imperative to let it out and not have the anxiety, anger and fear sit inside of you. But it’s generally not my tendency to sit and stew in anything for too long,” she said.
As for how her kids are handling all of this, Walsh says, “My daughter enjoys the costumes and seeing the final product. My son is nearly 3. He calls my infusions a ‘little red bird’ and has a quizzical look on his face when I walk into the living room with a pink wig. So…I think he’s fine with it?”
“My graduate school movement teacher taught us in our first year that we had a choice as to how we react to situations," she continued. "I still have days when I want to cry. Thankfully, I have a great support system. My husband and parents are rock stars."