By Anne Fitzgibbon

Guest Columnist

New York, NY, USA


On March 1, 2015, my sister, Ellen Fitzgibbon, photographed a snow-covered trail and a determined patch of sunshine forcing its way through a tangle of bare, black branches. Below the photo she quoted Albert Camus, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”


The metaphorical winter she no doubt had in mind when she took that photograph was the devastating diagnosis she had received, less than a year earlier, of late stage ovarian cancer. The invincible summer she had discovered was a light inside her that grew as bright as a day in June during the last few years of her life, thanks in no small part to her passion for photography.

Ellen Fitzgibbon with Jake

Photography had arrived late to Ellen’s world, a world already rich with interests and achievements. She was an accomplished flutist, and as I recall, her high school solo performance of Claude Bolling’s “Sentimentale” made me sit up a little straighter with pride as I listened from the stage with my classmates. Growing up, her weekends were spent at the stable, and her bedroom was strewn with rows of colorful ribbons won at horse shows; later she would join the equestrian team at Smith College. Always bookish, she devoured James Herriot’s tales of life as a veterinarian when she was small and eventually graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Veterinary School, regaling family and friends with the antics of her motley patients – from Pickles, a bright green iguana, to a prissy chihuahua named, of all things, Brooke Astor!


Ellen was a keen and humorous observer of life whose gaze I had to avoid during formal or serious occasions – a holiday dinner, church service, or medical appointment – when she seemed most determined to make me laugh. At certain moments, I still find myself silently narrating an event for maximum comedic effect and can see from the corner of my mind’s eye her shoulders trembling in an effort to stifle her giggles.

Cape May Shipwreck

That ability to leaven life’s somber moments was put to the test when Ellen received her diagnosis in June of 2014. She had called me at work to share the news, and as I cried, she maintained a steely strength to comfort me and weeks later would remark that if there was a gift she could draw from such a hideous turn of events, it was a singular sense of purpose – though she could not have known at that time that her purpose would grow to touch and inspire so many.


Following her diagnosis, while continuing to work full-time, Ellen traveled to Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ireland, Greece, and as often as possible, to her beloved Colorado to hike, bike, and ski, with her trusty camera in hand. She had always enjoyed photography, but during her cancer treatments, it became more than a hobby. She once reflected, “Although there were days I was too tired to lift my camera, photography was the only activity that could distract me from thinking about my diagnosis.” Sharing pictures online kept her socially engaged and editing photos of the places she had explored fueled her relentless fight against the cancer whose return, she knew, was inevitable.

Sally Light Foot Crab (Galapagos Islands, Ecuador)

The fact remains there is no method of early detection for ovarian cancer, which explains its ominous life expectancy rates. If you have ever attended a fundraising event for diabetes, heart disease, or breast cancer, you have surely seen participants with “survivor” printed proudly on the fronts of their t-shirts. During our first ovarian cancer walk with Ellen, however, we were stunned to find ourselves in a crowd of t-shirts that read instead, “walking in memory of…”


Too smart and too grounded to suffer any delusions about her illness and her prognosis, Ellen focused her lens on magnificent natural images – a cloud-shrouded mountain peak, the delicate perch of a butterfly, the drapery of snow on a graceful hillside – as if by catching them, she might hold the passing time just as still. To look at her photographs is to share the perspective of someone contemplating, with full appreciation, the beauty of this world and its evanescence.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (Colorado)

As her photographs drew attention, Ellen established a project called Shooting for a Cure, selling her images to raise ovarian cancer awareness as well as funding to support early detection research. At an exhibit of her work at a local coffee house in Philadelphia, she gathered family, friends, doctors, researchers, and art lovers to advance her effort and shared her story with eloquence and honesty. I considered then how casually the title “hero” is bestowed and how many times over my sister had earned that status by quietly creating a second career in service to others as a photographer, advocate, and philanthropist, all while managing myriad medical appointments and chasing clinical trials she hoped might save her life.


One afternoon, while receiving chemotherapy, Ellen noted the chilling effect of the bare white walls that surrounded her in a place where she and other patients spent long days craving nothing more than comfort and hope. That moment crystallized an idea that was to become her final wish: to mount her bright, bold images within those desolate confines, along with a small plaque, she would humbly request, “with my dates and a little something about me.”

Treatment Room at Penn Medicine

Today, her vibrant photos adorn the treatment rooms at Penn Hospital, just as she had wanted, and next to them are the words "Photography by Dr. Ellen Fitzgibbon who established Shooting for a Cure to support ovarian cancer research and bring hope and beauty to those facing cancer. (1969-2018)” As my family and I made our way through those rooms last year before honoring Ellen at a hospital reception, my heart at once ached with loss and burst with pride to see her vision and vitality leaping from the walls of those sterile spaces.

Dingle Peninsula (Ireland)

This year, on the second anniversary of my sister’s passing, I established the Ellen Fitzgibbon Memorial Photography Competition to keep her legacy alive. The competition opened on September 1st to coincide with Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month and, in addition to awarding cash prizes, will donate winning photos to cancer hospitals across the country. We invite submissions from photographers who share Ellen’s appreciation for the natural world and who find inspiration in knowing their photograph might one day grace the wall of a cancer hospital as a messenger of Ellen’s selfless mission.

Ellen Fitzgibbon (Santorini, Greece)

As cliché as it might sound, whenever the sun pierces the clouds overhead, I feel Ellen’s presence, and I think of the entirety of the Camus quote that spoke to her and captures so well her spirit and the intent of the photography competition established in her memory: “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”


(All photographs by Ellen Fitzgibbon - Courtesy of Anne Fitzgibbon)


The Ellen Fitzgibbon Memorial Photography Competition  

National Ovarian Cancer Coalition



Anne Fitzgibbon is the Founder and Executive Director of the Harmony Program, a nonprofit organization that provides young people from underserved New York City communities with free, intensive musical training with the goal of supporting their healthy social development and academic achievement. She holds a graduate degree from Princeton in Public Affairs, an undergraduate degree from Barnard College and studied clarinet at the Juilliard School.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.