Divorce is often nasty but once in a while, the details of a particular breakup grab ahold of the soul and won’t let go. One such case involves Alaina Giordano, a mother of two who is battling Stage 4 breast cancer. On April 25 Giordano lost custody of her children, when a judge ruled that they would need to relocate from their Durham, N.C., to live with their father in Chicago by June 17 because, essentially, the judge said, a healthy dad is better than a sick mom.
Giordano was stunned. She had expected an open-and-shut case. Quickly, an elementary-school friend leaped into action, slapping up a Facebook page that he hoped would spread the word and help Giordano attract a pro bono lawyer who could challenge Judge Nancy Gordon’s ruling. She’s seeking an altruistic attorney because Giordano doesn’t earn an income — she’s a stay-at-home mom (SAHM, natch), the toughest of jobs — a fact that was used against her in the custody battle, igniting a wave of support from fellow SAHMers.
(More on TIME.com: Should a Mother Lose Custody of Her Kids Because She Has Cancer?)
Concern over Giordano’s health was also a primary issue in the custody battle. Her cancer was diagnosed in 2007, about six months before she moved with her family to Durham so that her husband, Kane Snyder, could study for his M.B.A. at Duke University. The cancer has since metastasized to her bones, which is hardly a good thing. But her treatment regimen is keeping the disease at bay; she says it is not actively spreading. And it’s anyone’s guess how long she’ll live.
In the meantime, she says she’s able to parent and, if her recent media schedule is any gauge, rival the stamina of a triathlete. On Wednesday, Giordano was in New York City for a publicity blitz. She awoke at 5 a.m. to arrive at the Today show set with her kids, 11-year-old Sofia and 5-year-old Bud. She did her interview; her kids met Matt Lauer. Afterward, she knocked out another few interviews, including The Gayle King Show and CNN, where they ran into Michelle Obama’s brother and Anderson Cooper.
Then there was lunch with Giordano’s cousin and dinner with the kids at the Hard Rock Cafe (the haunted Jekyll and Hyde Club having proved too spooky for Bud). They gallivanted through Central Park and finished the day in the audience of “The Addams Family,” a Broadway musical. “I’m totally functional,” says Giordano.
(More on TIME.com: What We Can Learn from the Schwarzenegger-Shriver Split)
As she waited with her kids for her return flight to North Carolina, Giordano spoke with Healthland about fighting — for her life, but mostly for her children. (Kane Snyder was also asked to comment for this post, but he did not return emails or phone calls.)
Healthland: How much do your children know about what’s going on?
Giordano: They know there was a court case and I had to tell them the judge said they have to move. I told them the night of the ruling. I was still in shock at that point. I tried to be matter-of-fact. I did say I wanted them to stay with me, but the judge ruled otherwise.
My daughter can be a bit stoic, like me, but when it was just me and her, she started screaming, crying. She didn’t get out of bed, didn’t want to leave the apartment. My son has been very anxious. He doesn’t want to let me out of his sight. He sleeps with me. They know that when someone forces you to do something, that’s not love.
Healthland: What kind of relationship do your children have with their father?
Giordano: He’s their dad, and I do my best to be honest with them but also be protective of their relationship with him. They love their dad. When my son says, “Daddy hates you and you hate Daddy,” I say, “I don’t hate your dad, but I’m not happy with his behavior.”
Healthland: Does he visit frequently?
Giordano: I can’t really say how often. He came to visit for one night in February, one night in March, and the judge ordered [the kids] go there for spring break, so they did. There were about eight weeks in the fall when he didn’t come to see them.
Healthland: What did you do before your kids were born?
Giordano: I worked as a paralegal in Philadelphia. [Snyder] was a waiter. I took the LSAT but when I had kids I stayed home, and he was finishing his undergraduate degree and working. In Aug. 2005, he became a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers so he was away a lot. … I went on every [school] field trip. I was the room mother. My kids always came first.
Healthland: It seems like there must be something else going on in addition to your illness to warrant a custody decision like this. There are allegations of cheating and abuse. What’s going on there?
Giordano: I admitted my cheating. He won’t admit his. In North Carolina, if there is an affair you don’t get alimony so he has really gone after me on that. … It’s always been an abusive relationship. There is documentation. I had a witness testify that she saw him physically assault me in front of my son. The judge heard that, then wrote there was no domestic violence that qualified under whatever statute it was.
Healthland: What are your next steps?
Giordano: I need an attorney to file this appeal ASAP. I had to borrow money for an attorney so I am looking for pro bono. [Snyder] outlawyered me like crazy. He walked away with everything.
I try not to have regrets. I believe everything happens for a reason. After I get my kids back or get to keep them, I would like to see legislation passed to protect people who are sick from losing their children.
Healthland: What is your prognosis?
Giordano: Unknown. That was what made the judge uncomfortable. Nobody knows. People live five years, 10 years, longer. I am getting so many emails saying, “I have Stage 4 cancer and I raised my children.” The emails are a great upside.