Family Matters

Alaina Giordano: Lost Cancer Battle, but Won Right to See Her Kids Before Death

It's unlikely that the legal battles over Alaina Giordano's children will end with her death. Her parents want to maintain a relationship with their grandchildren and could wind up back in court fighting for visitation rights.

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In early June, Alaina Giordano — the mom who made national headlines when a judge declared that her kids were better off with her estranged husband in part because she had breast cancer — was granted permission to be with her children as she neared the end of her life. The judge gave them one month to spend with their mom — until July 8.

But Giordano didn’t make it that long. She died June 25. She was 38.

Giordano’s last year of life was spent trying to balance her desire to be a mother with her need to fight her cancer. Giordano and her family were living in Durham, N.C., when a judge awarded custody to her husband, Kane Snyder. Snyder had accepted a job in Chicago, and their kids had to move with him. Giordano was faced with deciding whether to follow them or to stay in Durham, where she’d forged relationships with doctors treating her Stage 4 breast cancer and had been accepted into a clinical trial.

Here’s how she summed up her dilemma last August:

“To pass on an opportunity to participate in a clinical trial … I’m damned if I do, and I’m damned if I don’t,” she says. “I’m forced to make a decision between seeing my kids every day and not living as long to be their mom.”

She remained in Durham to participate in the trial, but unable to resist the pull of motherhood, Giordano also traveled back and forth to Chicago to see her kids, with the help of strangers who learned of her plight via her Facebook page and contributed money to her cause. Meanwhile, she was growing sicker.

(MORE: Alaina Giordano, Mom with Stage 4 Cancer, Speaks Out About Losing Her Kids)

Ostensibly, a dying woman has better things to do with her time than engage in protracted legal warfare. But Giordano felt she had no choice. She was fighting for the right to be with her children, but she was also fighting for the rights of sick mothers everywhere in similar situations. As Peter Kaufmann — her childhood friend who became her spokesman — wrote on her Facebook page: “She realized that she had become the voice for those who were in similar situations — with cancer, with custody battles, with insurmountable struggles. Because she faced her mortality on a regular basis she looked at her life as one that gave strength to those who were less fortunate than she — those whose stories did NOT get public attention…”

It must be said that amid allegations of cheating and even jail time after at least one supercharged argument, neither parent presented in court as June or Ward Cleaver. Yet the decision to cut short the already disease-limited time the children could spend with their mother felt wrongheaded to Giordano’s nearly 24,000 Facebook fans. As I observed last year in an article about the case, no one ever recommended — at least publicly — that custody of Elizabeth Edwards’ young children be transferred to their father, John Edwards, when she faced terminal breast cancer.

In that same piece, Art Caplan, then the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, addressed concerns of trauma endured by the kids from witnessing their mother’s decline: “[I]s it really even possible to shield children from loss? Your first instinct is to protect the kids, but clearly children have to bear all kinds of challenging and terrible events. What’s worse: moving them away from the mom when she’s dying or letting them stay as long as possible? It’s pretty clear what the answer is.”

(MORE: Should a Mother Lose Custody of Her Kids Because She Has Cancer?)

In the final weeks that Giordano’s children — Sofia, 12, and Bud, 8 — spent with their mother at their grandparents’ Pennsylvania home in June, they were able to make some memories. She watched as they jumped on a trampoline and played the Wii. She spent time talking alone with Sofia. She wrote in her journal a lot and recorded herself reading a book to them.

Alaina and I kept in touch regularly over the past 14 months since her story first broke. I had recently moved away from North Carolina, but had kept my N.C. cell phone number; perhaps the familiar area code is what prompted her to pick up the phone the first time we spoke. When I returned to visit last summer, we talked about meeting in person. But busy lives got in the way. I was working — writing about her latest setback, in fact — and she was taking care of her children. I never spoke to Snyder despite multiple attempts, so I can’t say much about his motivations. What I can say is that before she died, Giordano extracted a promise from her sister, Lauren Kupillas. “She said,” recounts Kupillas, “Make sure they never forget me.”

Fulfilling that promise is not entirely within her control; Kupillas is fairly certain that her parents — the children’s grandparents — will have to go to court to request visitation rights. Before she left Kupillas’ home last month, Sofia asked her aunt when she would see her again. Kupillas told her it was up to her father to decide. Giordano’s Facebook page was titled Alaina Giordano Should Not Lose Her Kids Because She Has Breast Cancer. It may be time for an addendum, something along the lines of: Alaina Giordano’s Children Should Not Lose Their Family Just Because She Lost Her Battle.

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