Three years after her photo shoot of three small-town Oklahoma girls battling cancer went viral, photographer Lora Scantling has now released another set of snapshots — this time showing the girls healthy, happy and cancer-free.
And nobody is more thrilled with that news than Scantling, 33, of Yukon, Oklahoma, who lost her stepdad to lung cancer and watched a friend lose her son to childhood cancer several years ago. She came up with the idea for the first photo shoot to raise awareness about children with cancer locally, never dreaming that her photos of three bald girls embracing each other would touch hearts worldwide.
Now with people constantly asking how the girls are doing, Scantling, who has owned her studio, Scantling Photography, for 10 years, has decided to do a photo shoot of the girls every year for as long as they like.
“They’re inspiring to so many that I’m happy to keep taking photos for the rest of their lives, she tells PEOPLE. “Besides an annual photo shoot, I’d love to take pictures of their high school graduations, their weddings, all of their biggest milestones. To have them all alive and doing well is wonderful. It’s like they’re family now.”
It was 2014 when Scantling put out a Facebook post offering to do a special photo shoot of any little girls who were diagnosed with cancer. Although they didn’t know each other at the time, Rheann, now 9, Ainsley, 7, and Rylie, 6, are good friends today, tickling each other and giggling whenever they get together.
There is much to smile about.
Although Rheann will never see her hair grow back and will probably always have eyes that droop due to the location of her brain tumor, “Lora’s photos have helped us to deal with a scary situation,” says her mother, Valerie Franklin, of Norman, Oklahoma.
“For people who haven’t experienced it,” she tells PEOPLE, “cancer is hard to understand. But through Lora’s photos and the girls’ Facebook pages, we’ve been able to share our good days and bad days, and let people see how cancer can affect a ‘normal’ family.”
“If I had to sum up Lora’s photos in one word, it would be ‘hope,'” adds Rylie’s mother, Bridget Hughey, of Chandler, Oklahoma. “It means so much to our family, because when I look at that photo, I know we’re not alone. Strength comes in numbers, and I hope that another family in the middle of a battle with cancer can look at the photo and be inspired. If these three little girls can kick cancer, then so can other kids.”
The new photo session — with the same dresses, headbands and pearls used the first time — was just as powerful, says Ainsley’s mom, Andrea Peters, of Stillwater, Oklahoma, because everyone could see how far the girls had come since they first started chemotherapy. Ainsley was successfully treated for leukemia, Rylie for kidney cancer, and Rheann for a rare form of brain cancer.
“We all get to share stories, heartaches and new achievements,” Andrea tells PEOPLE, “and we’re all honored to be a part of the bigger picture. The photos and stories behind the photos have brought all the warriors out in the world, and that’s been amazing.”
Scantling, who was shocked to learn that only about four percent of federal funding for cancer research is spent on pediatric cancers, hopes that her photo sessions continue to inspire people worldwide to contribute to the cause.
“Any time a kid comes in with some kind of a battle, it melts my heart,” she says. “Seeing these little girls come together, smiling and laughing, is always so inspiring. They remind me of what’s most important in life.”