How wedding photography helped one woman through the worst year of her life

Kelsey Combe talked about her parents' battle with cancer in a personal essay.

ByABC News via GMA logo
February 2, 2018, 7:17 AM

— -- When a wedding photographer's darkest days of her family's life came on the heels of some of their brightest, she realized that although things could disappear in a flash, memories and living portraits would always remain.

A family's uphill battle with cancer

Kelsey Combe, 30, lost both of her parents to rare forms of cancer within just three months of one another, making 2017 one of the most difficult years of her life.

Doug Fuller kisses Sharon Fuller in Paris, April 2016, after her cancer had returned and she was diagnosed as terminal three months prior to the trip.
Kelsey Combe Photography

Combe's mother, Sharon Fuller, was initially diagnosed and treated for lung cancer in 2014 and was later declared cancer-free that same year. One year later, due to a rare complication called leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, the cancer spread to her spinal chord and doctors said she was terminal. Fuller was accepted into a clinical trial that gave her another year and a half to live, but Combe's father was then diagnosed with cancer as well.

Crissie Vitale (sister) comforts Elliot Fuller (brother) as he lies with our dying mother (Sharon Fuller).
Kelsey Combe Photography

"About a year and a half ago we knew we didn't have long because her cancer was progressing and she was removed from the clinical trial," Combe told ABC News. "At the time my father was expressing that he had stomach pain and we thought he was just stressed from all the caretaking, but doctors found a mass on his pancreas that turned out to be stage 3 pancreatic cancer."

Combe moved her parents into her home outside New York City to help care for them and regularly took them to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan for various appointments.

Elliott Fuller, Kelsey Combe, Sharon Fuller, Crissie Vitale and Doug Fuller a month after Sharon’s lung cancer surgery, taken July 2014.

After Fuller underwent hip surgery, Combe said her mother "was rapidly declining" so the family took her to her favorite place, their cottage in Michigan. Her dad, Doug Fuller, and siblings Crissie Vitale and Elliott Fuller all went to Michigan and spent time looking through years of old family photos that her mom had scanned and her sister loaded onto an iPad, while Combe took her own photos, documenting their final days together.

"The week leading up to my mom dying we got pretty obsessive over old family photos," Combe said. "They were really comforting and sort of the only source of comfort for all of us at the time."

Doug Fuller (father) checks on Sharon Fuller (mother) in the final days of her life at Combe’s family cottage in Northern Michigan.
Kelsey Combe Photography

Sharon Fuller died at the age of 62 on June 14, 2017, her husband's birthday, as Combe was flying back to New York to check her father into the hospital for pneumonia. Doug Fuller had been flying back and forth from Michigan to New York for his cancer treatments and was in New York when his wife died.

"When she died, his numbers took a drastic switch and the doctors said he would not get better," Combe said. "We know it was the cancer that killed him, but we all felt like it was a broken heart."

Kelsey Combe holds her father's hand as he died at a hospice center in New Jersey on Sep. 25, 2017.
Kelsey Combe Photography

How wedding photography helped her heal

Michael Camaleri and Sarah Marks on their wedding day Sep. 30, 2017, five days after Combe’s father died.
Kelsey Combe Photography

Doug Fuller died at the age of 66 on Sep. 25, 2017. Amid the tragedy, Combe turned to her work and clients for compassion and a sense of purpose. She photographed a wedding three days after her mother's death and another just five days after her father's death.

"I really think the weddings almost kept me going in a way, because it would have been really easy to just hide in bed, but I had this purpose that the world kept turning," she said.

Sarah Marks (bride) and her mother Susan get ready before Sarah’s wedding on Sep. 30, 2017, five days after Combe’s father died.
Kelsey Combe Photography

"Seeing the brides and grooms with their healthy happy parents there with them gave me mixed emotions, but I was happy for them and that I could be there to give them these pictures that will one day mean so much to them and their family."

Combe photographed Jessica Czahur and Tom Giametta's wedding on June 17, 2017, three days after her mother died.
Kelsey Combe Photography

She continued, "I know that the photos really, really matter to those families and in the end and that’s what got me out of bed to these weddings."

Riding for a cause

Combe said although the experience was difficult she actively looks for ways to preserve her parent's spirit and honor their memory outside of photography.

After their mother's initial battle with cancer Combe's sister put together a team for Cycle for Survival, an indoor team cycling event by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center that raises money to fund lifesaving rare cancer research.

Last year, all of the siblings participated, which Combe said meant the world to their mom. "I have a text from my mom and dad after last year's ride," Combe said, adding that at the time their mom had been battling terminal cancer for over a year and didn't know their dad would also get it.

Elliot Fuller (brother), Crissie Vitale (sister), Kelsey Combe at Cycle for Survival at Equinox in Chicago Feb. 2017.
Cycle for Survival

Her mother's text message said, "Thank you all so much for taking the time to do what you did today. I can't express how much it means to me!"

Combe said this year will be a challenge after losing both parents to rare forms of cancer, but she is looking forward to sharing their story. "I think knowing if they were here what it would mean to them will make it a pretty emotional ride."

"I remember someone gave a speech between rides last year saying that cancer can strike at any time and take someone you love so quickly," Combe said. When that message became her reality Combe said Cycle for Survival became the perfect platform for her to inspire others and fundraise for a cause that will help prevent families from experiencing the same thing.

"We don't have control over this life, we really can't control the outcome and ending, which my family learned in a big way, but we can control how we act and spread kindness through hard times. That's something my parents taught me and that's what I want to share," Combe said.

"Cycle for Survival is a literal representation because I’m not riding to save my parents, but it could save potential future heartache."

This year, Combe and her siblings will lead two Cycle for Survival teams called the "Fuller Flyers." They will ride in Chicago later this month and then Combe and her sister will ride at the event in New York City in March alongside many of Combe's brides and grooms.

"Sharon and Doug Fuller were extraordinary parents and people," Combe said. "I want everyone to know how wonderful they were."

Combe penned a personal essay about her family's experience. Read the full text below.

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