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Finding Solace And Inspiration Through Photography

Among the many reasons students have for choosing a college major, few are as personal and intimate as Falon Renee Cornett’s. In 2020, at the young age of 15, Falon was unexpectedly diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer known as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer which attacks the body’s lymphatic system. Over the next two years or so, leading up to her high school graduation, she began to document her feelings and experiences in a journal her aunt had given her. To complement written journal entries, she took simple photographs using a Polaroid camera her grandmother bought her. By the time she graduated from the McDowell Virtual Academy in 2022, she had taken such solace in her journaling efforts and photographs that there was no question in her mind that she wanted to study photography.

Falon Renee Photography

This Friday, Falon will walk across the stage at Nebo Crossing Church in Marion, NC to receive her Associate’s Degree in Photographic Technology from McDowell Technical Community College with high honors and a perfect 4.0 grade point average (GPA). Just days ago, she completed her last photography assignment in her photojournalism class, conceptually recreating her cancer journaling process with new photographs bound into a beautiful hard-cover book. She put tremendous thought into each photograph and the resulting book holds deep meaning for her.

This August, Falon will begin a new journey in the Film and Television Program at Western Carolina University, where she will work toward a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Stage and Screen. While she has a strong interest in what some people refer to as lifestyle photography, she also enjoyed a recent video production class she had at McDowell Tech and believes that there are more professional opportunities available to her in this career path. She is very happy with the photographic skills she developed at McDowell Tech and is confident that they will provide her a financially and personally rewarding side hustle for the rest of her life.

“I’m going wherever life takes me,” she said. “I am also considering medical photography in the military.” Her grandfather and grandmother were both in the military, as were other relatives.

While she could have chosen to go anywhere to college, Western was a natural fit for her. Her boyfriend of 5 years, Cade Queen, who recently graduated from McDowell Tech with an Associate’s Degree in Mechatronics Engineering, is already a student there, majoring in Engineering Technology. Cade, she said, stuck with her every step she took on her journey to better health, and he makes her heart sing. She looks forward to spending more time with him this fall.

Falon Renee Photography
I had to take antibiotics during my treatment due to being autoimmune; I personally struggled with swallowing these, and this photo is representative of having them forced on you.
Falon Renee Photography
My hospital bracelet on the briar bush represents the feeling of being stuck in a briar bush. It's alone, left on the briar, and it means moving on from the struggles that once held you down.

Where Falon’s Journey Began

When she first began to have swelling in her neck, chest, lower abdomen and even behind her ear, she “blew it off,” as she expressed it. “I thought I was just pushing myself too hard. The nodule in her neck alone was the size of a baseball—quite large for such a petite young woman. “But I was taking weightlifting and had a lot going on, so I ignored it.”

But when the nodules persisted, she went to the doctor, where she was first diagnosed with cat scratch fever and given a prescription for antibiotics, but within 5 minutes of her getting home, she got a call from the doctor’s office. They were having second thoughts and were referring her to a pediatric oncologist in Asheville. She had an appointment for two to three days later, but those two or three days were the most excruciating ever. 

“I blocked most of it out—when I got to the appointment—but I remember hearing the worst part… stage 4 cancer,” she said. It was a devastating diagnosis for anyone, let alone a 15 year-old. “There were CT and PET scans, dies and crap—loading me full of stuff.” She was surprised at how matter-of-fact they were about everything—chemo and other treatment options—but in retrospect she realizes that they knew how important it was for her to hear what she was facing.

It was the part about losing her hair that hit her worst, though. “I didn’t want to hear that. I broke down and started crying, but they just kept talking.” She remembers thinking, ‘the world does not pause for you—for emotions.’

As she started chemo treatments, she had a lot of anxiety. Making things worse, because of COVID, she could only have one person with her at the cancer center, usually her mom. They gave her Benadryl to help, but it caused her to seize. Her boyfriend was there that day, and the nurses ushered him out right away. But he stuck with her.

Because the chemotherapy caused her to be autoimmune, she had to isolate for about a year as she went through her treatments, alternating weekly between checkups and treatments. She said she slept a lot during that year, but she still managed to keep up with her school work online and cooked most of her own food. She had a catheter in her chest to receive intravenous chemo, and she remembers vividly all of the pains she took to avoid getting that “port-a-cath” wet when she tried to bathe. “But I managed not to get it wet for the whole year. I was so afraid it would get it wet and I would get an infection.”

She reeled off a list of chemotherapy drugs she took, focusing on the negative effects they had on her lungs—doxorubicin, vinblastine, bleomycin and two or three others.

The good news is that part of her life is mostly behind her now. She finished her last treatment in April of 2022 and had her port-a-cath surgically removed just weeks before she started classes at McDowell Tech in August of that year. At first, she had monthly checkups, then every two months, every three months and now yearly. “The best news is that the type of cancer I had is not known to re-occur, but they do my checkups just to be sure.”

Fallon Renee Photography
This self-portrait, taken in my car, conveys the feeling of being trapped. Just a sheet of glass separating me from reality. My breath on the glass and my eye contact show that I'm still alive and my power wasn't taken away.
Falon Renee Photography
The inside of my journal highlights the Polaroid I took when I had my portacath for chemotherapy inserted after surgery, and my boyfriend Cade Queen photographed one more above.

The Spark That Ignited Her Creativity

When she was first diagnosed, her aunt gave her a journal titled, “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.” It was hard to get started writing in the journal, but “…I had a weird sense that I had to do it.” When she started writing, she realized that it wasn’t enough. She had taken photos in yearbook class and decided to ask her grandmother, Barbara Ireland, for a Polaroid to take photos that she could put in the journal. It was the spark she needed to ignite her creativity.

“I feel like when I saw all of it together—the whole journey, right up to ringing the bell at the end of my treatment—that it delved me into photography. It sparked my passion for photography. When I told my family that I was going here—McDowell Tech—it was like I was destined to be here. I know it sounds cheesy, but I love it,” she said.

This spring, her photojournalism instructor, renowned artist, curator and author Endia Beal, assigned Falon’s class to pick a story that interested them and document it for 14 weeks. The story Falon chose took a bit of thought to execute. She had already gone through her cancer experience, but how could she document that with new photographs? She decided she would take photographs that attempted to capture the feelings she went through during her cancer journey. When she finished the project, she compiled her photos into a beautiful and touching hard-bound book.

She has entered her work in a contest to join the Eddie Adams Workshop, a non-profit, merit-based photojournalism workshop held each year in October, with Canon as one of the lead sponsors. She will find out in July whether she is one of the winners. Over a period of 24 years, alumni of the workshop have gone on to win 18 Pulitzer prizes, 16 have won world press awards, and 35 have gone on to work for world-famous organizations like Getty Images, the New York Times, National Geographic and Reuters.

Winning

Whether she wins a chance to participate in the Eddie Adams Workshop, Falon is already a winner. She won her battle with cancer. She won her battle for life. And she is certainly a winner at McDowell Tech—on the President’s list all four semesters, 4.0 GPA and member of both Phi Theta Kappa and National Technical Honor Society.

Falon recently donated a framed photo of her journal on a bed of broken glass to hang in the lobby at the Asheville Pediatric Cancer Care Center at Mission Hospital. While this is a professional photo, it is not the first time her work has hung in the lobby there. When she was a patient there, she would take in some her artwork and a childcare specialist named Tamika would hang it on the wall. “You’re going to do great things,” Tamika would say.

Those words were no doubt prophetic. “Falon is a winner, and she will no doubt do great things,” said Ryan Garrison, MTCC Interim President. “When the chips were down for Falon, we are glad that she found solace and inspiration in Photography and that we got to be part of her higher education experience. We wish her nothing but the best as she embarks on the next leg of her journey this fall at Western Carolina. Good luck, Falon!”

To view Falon’s gallery, visit https://falonreneephotography.mypixieset.com/

Falon Renee Photography
I carried a journal with me throughout my cancer treatment, and I documented my life day by day during my treatment.
Fallon Renee Photography
This is the journal I used to carry during my treatment; the movement in the pages shows the continuum of time during my treatment, and the broken glass under the book represents how I felt.

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