Annette Hill works as a laboratory technologist. Her job is to detect cancer in breast tissue.
Her medical knowledge brought her no comfort when, at four weeks pregnant, she discovered a lump in her breast.
She knew breast cancer in the 21st century is far less insidious than in the past. She knew that an increasing number of women use cutting edge methodology and the newest cancer drugs to become cancer free. It didn’t bring her much comfort when she thought of her two young children, Paris, 4, and Kelvin, 6, and their dad, Kevin Skinner. When the diagnosis was given, she was afraid for her life and worried about what might happen to theirs.
“It doesn’t matter that you work in the health care industry,” she said. “When I heard I had breast cancer, everything I know about cancer went out of my head.’
“The thing I was most afraid of was the chemotherapy affecting the baby,” she said. A kind nurse at Women’s and Children’s Hospital told her about a local group that provides support for pregnant women with cancer, called Hope for Two.
The non-profit organization, which was started by three Western New York women in 1997, has gone global. Today, pregnant women from all over the world who are battling cancer, share information on the website, www.pregnantwithcancer.org.
Patty Murray of Amherst was one of the founding trio. Murray was 35-years-old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer while she was pregnant. Her greatest fear was also taking chemotherapy and harming her unborn child. “They wanted me to abort the baby,” she said. One of her doctors convinced her that there was enough literature showing she could take chemo and the baby could still be born healthy.
“I just had to believe him,” she said. So she received chemotherapy and then delivered her son, just a week after her last chemotherapy treatment. While her head was still patchy from the hair loss due to the chemotherapy, it was clear the chemicals did not seep into the placenta to harm her newborn son, Patrick. “I had three children,” she said. “Patrick was my only child born with hair.”
The experience taught her an important lesson. She knew that she would have benefited from a support group of some sort. So she and two friends, Lisa Radel of Williamsville and Mary Rose McDermott of South Buffalo, each of whom had battled cancer while pregnant, formed Hope for Two. While Radel and McDermott are no longer involved with the leadership of the group, Murray continues on as the volunteer director and president of the board. The testimonials keep her going. “I hear moms say, ‘Thank God you were there,’ those testimonials and those stories remind me why I’m doing this. It’s great. It’s like you get a high off helping other people.”
Her son, Patrick, is now 19 and a sophomore in the All-College honors program at Canisius College.
On the website, every hardship becomes an opportunity to share important information. When Murray was diagnosed recently with a new and different Stage One breast cancer, she wrote about her mastectomy and reconstructive surgery in a column she writes in the Hope for Two bi-annual newsletter.
It’s that kind of information sharing that women respond to, along with the ability to see someone has survived what they are going through.
Susan Musialowski, the patient coordinator for Hope for Two, said more mentors are needed. “One in 1,000 women will have a cancer diagnosis in pregnancy each year,” she said. “In a typical year we may support anywhere from 80 to 100 new members.”
Musialowski, who was diagnosed in 1999 with thyroid cancer while pregnant with her second child, said the local group is helping moms around the world. “Because we are internet based, we’re able to help women around the world, in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Thailand, you name it.”
The site, also reachable at www.hopefortwo.org, certainly helped Annette Hill, the Buffalo lab technologist mentioned above, who plans to become a mentor on the site. She joined Hope for Two and found strength to face what was ahead for her and her third child, Kara Michelle, born perfectly healthy 10 months ago. “I didn’t have a verbal conversation with anyone,” she said. “But I did email back and forth with other women whenever I got the strength. It helped a great deal to know this had happened to other moms and their babies turned out fine. That gave me comfort.”
HOPE FOR TWO
To contact the group:
• Hope for Two, PO Box 253, Amherst, NY 14226