SALT LAKE CITY — Paul Jaeger knows taking portraits of cancer patients won’t cure them.
Neither will running a 5K, hosting a fundraising ball or compiling a booklet of support services.
But as a cancer survivor, Jaeger knows that it can be the smallest, seemingly insignificant moments that actually edify and sustain a person most when the fight is as arduous as most cancer battles.
He knows because cancer has taken a lot from him.
But it was during his fight, which changed just about everything in his life from his perspective to his profession, that he also received some unexpected gifts. One of those was the opportunity to help people in their own struggles with cancer, a disease afflicting 32.6 million people as of 2012, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
It all began when he found himself in extreme pain.
“I started throwing up blood, but I didn’t want to go to the hospital because I didn’t have insurance,” said Jaeger, who worked as a freelance commercial photographer at the time. Eventually, his brother insisted he go to an emergency room. Jaeger was admitted, but it took doctors three days to diagnose him with stomach cancer.
Surgery took half his esophagus and half of his stomach. He spent three months in the Intensive Care Unit recovering before enduring chemotherapy. During his stay in the ICU, he couldn’t eat or drink. He said it was surprising to him what he missed and why.
He persuaded his brother to sneak a Pepsi into his ICU room where he swabbed the sides of his tongue with the soda he yearned to taste.
“It’s funny what you miss,” he said with a smile.
His hospital stay shifted his perspective on many things — including beauty.
As he forged friendships with other patients, he saw that while their physical bodies became battered by cancer, their spirit often became more beautiful. He began doing what he’d always done — take pictures. He wanted to capture the beauty and strength he saw in his fellow patients.
He began referring to it as their light, and said it was this light people use to fight something as painful and debilitating as cancer.
“I wanted to give back while I was in the hospital,” he said. “So I started taking pictures.”
At first some patients were taken aback.
“But I think they were really sympathetic for me, as well,” Jaeger said. “They just got to a point where they were like, ‘It’s Paul, the guy with the camera, and that’s his therapy.’ ”
It may have ended there were it not for a little girl named April. He took some pictures of her laughing during a hospital stay, and then he gave the portraits to her family.
He didn’t think about the gesture again until more than a year later when he was walking down a street and a woman stopped him. It was April’s mother and she told him how much it meant to them to have those pictures of their daughter smiling and happy because they were among the last photographs taken before her death.
Jaeger said that conversation moved him so deeply, he decided to offer his photography services to other patients. At first he teamed up with other charities, but as the demand grew, he decided his services should as well.
That’s when Beauty 4 Cancer was born. Now a 501-C3, founded by Jaeger and his wife of two years, Ashley, the organization seeks to offer patients and survivors the opportunity to capture that light, that fight in professional portraits.
Beauty 4 Cancer held its first-ever fundraising 5K Sunday morning in Sugarhouse Park. It was sparsely attended, but that didn’t bother Jaeger, who admitted they didn’t have much time to advertise the race.
They didn’t have the chip timing many runners prefer, and the DJ failed to show up for the early morning event. But Jaeger took pictures of every finisher, and thanked participants with a raffle featuring prizes donated by local companies.
“You have to start somewhere,” he said, the smile returning to his face. “This is great, and we appreciate the support.”
He asked those who attended to nominate cancer patients and survivors for makeovers. Teaming up with other companies, Beauty 4 Cancer now makes the photo shoots a respite from the daily fight that goes well beyond physical pain.
Those nominated by family and friends receive a card in the mail offering the service — which begins with a limo ride to a spa where they receive hair and makeup services before a photography session that gives them portraits meant to capture more than just their physical appearance. Beauty 4 Cancer takes nominations on its website
Jaeger knows it may seem like a small gesture. But he knows from experience how much strength one can draw from small pleasures when fighting a disease that will change so much.
“Being a professional photographer, I see how much a picture does for someone, especially a picture someone really loves and treasures,” he said. “I call it the compliment that keeps on giving.”