When Alaina Giordano appeared on the Today Show Wednesday morning, she looked like any young mom you might see at school drop-off or soccer practice. But Giordano is going through something no mother would want to experience.
Two weeks ago, she lost custody of her two children because she has advanced breast cancer. Giordano's health is stable now, but a judge in North Carolina ruled that because her prognosis is uncertain, the children must move from Durham to Chicago to be with their father.
Custody battles are never pretty, but this one will likely strike fear-and compassion-in the hearts of cancer survivors everywhere. What if our diagnosis is used against us in a similar way?
"I think it is a dangerous ruling for me and my children and how it will affect us," Giordano told Matt Lauer, "but also for people all over the world with cancer. This is a bad precedent."
Like Giordano, I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my early 30s. I was nine months pregnant with my first child, and even though undergoing surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation was not how I expected to spend the first eight months of my son's life, I felt profoundly lucky to become a mother and watch my son flourish.
Yet having a child was also a painful reminder of the future I might not live to see. I would gaze at my beautiful boy and wonder, "Will I be able to walk him to kindergarten? Will I be around to comfort him when he doesn't make the team or feels his first heartbreak?"
Time is one of the most precious things a cancer patient has, especially parents of small children. We are willing to suffer the grisliest cancer treatments in order to buy more time with our kids-to shepherd them through the next milestone or the next phase of development. One mother I know willed herself to endure final rounds of devastating chemo just so she could spend one more Christmas with her son; she died three weeks later.
Many of us must accept the brutal fact that cancer will rob us of years of our lives. We swallow this terrible truth because we know our doctors have limited power over the cells in our bodies.
But to have a judge rob us of precious time with our children is just too hard to take.
Giordano is appealing the judge's decision. If she loses that case, her children will have to move to Chicago on June 17th. Theoretically, Giordano could also relocate to Chicago, but in her interview with Matt Lauer, she explained that her Stage IV disease is being held in check thanks to the incredible medical team she has found at Duke University.
Think of the inconvenience you might have felt when your insurance company made you switch dentists or therapists. Now imagine you had to leave the group of doctors who are literally keeping you alive. Cancer patients develop deep bounds with the people who guide us through the minefield of treatment options, side effects, and recurrences. I referred to my team of oncologists and surgeons "the mothership," and I refused to move away from them for five years after my diagnosis. I only felt safe leaving them then because my disease had not spread like Giordano's has.
The judge says she ruled in favor of the father because he has a job in Chicago. I know jobs are hard to come by in this economy, and he is the sole provider for the family. Yet given the finite time his children may have to spend with their mother, surely he should be compelled to explore all job opportunities within driving distance at least.
I know how fortunate I am. My cancer has not come back, and my marriage remained strong through the turmoil of a life-threatening illness. But I know how close I came to being Giordano. Really, any of us could be in her shoes. And if we were, I know we would want more time with our children.