Cancer, Divorce, & Custody of the Kids

When I saw the headline and watched the Today Show video stating that Alaina Giordano lost custody of her children, partly because she has Stage 4 breast cancer, I felt a flood of feelings. It certainly didn’t seem right or in the best interest of her kids, for them to be taken away from their mother just because she had cancer.

Having had cancer while I was going through a divorce with custody issues, I can relate. Fortunately, at the time of the divorce trial, there were no traces of my thyroid cancer left, and my prognosis was excellent for survival. Divorce cases are hard at best, and to his credit, my ex-husband and his attorney never raised that aspect in our divorce case. However, it makes me nervous on some level for parents who are fighting for custody of their children and who may have a disease- terminal or not.

The Alaina Giordano case raises a lot of concerns.  While the case facts have not been made public, there are allegations of domestic violence, mental illness, and cheating on both sides. Ms. Giordano has admitted to cheating, while her ex-husband has not. Clearly there are other issues involved besides Ms. Giordano’s terminal cancer.

With all things considered- assuming half way between all the allegations, somewhere is the truth, or at least only the facts that Judge Nancy Gordon, could consider, there are two parents accusing each other of severe wrongdoing and behavior that could be damaging to their two children, Sofia, 11, and Bud, 5.  With a terminal cancer diagnosis for the mom, and testimony from a forensic psychologist, Dr. Helen Brantley, who Judge Gordon cited in her ruling saying, “The more contact [the children] have with the non-ill parent, the better they do. They divide their world into the cancer world and a free of cancer world. Children want a normal childhood, and it is not normal with an ill parent.”, and it seems like Ms. Giordano’s cancer was the deciding factor in this case.

On the surface, I don’t think any parent should be penalized with losing custody of their children for their health, as long as they can take care of their children, and children don’t see their parent suffering.

My kids saw me fight cancer. They knew what cancer was, they knew why I was going to the hospital. They saw me after my neck had been dissected and I was in the hospital. They saw me sick for months as I recovered. They knew why I didn’t have enough energy to be the mom to them for a while like they were used to. They knew why they couldn’t be around me for a week- because I was getting a pill that would kill the cancer in my body, but it put out energy that was dangerous for them to be around as kids. They saw me at my weakest- on days I could barely care for them and had to have family help me. They also saw me recover, gain my strength back, and beat it. When I told them in March, my cancer was gone for good, they lit up, because they understand, because I never hid it from them. When I was diagnosed with cancer, and while I fought the hard part of it they were five and a half and three. I obviously didn’t go into all the details with them, but they knew what they needed to know for their age.

I’ve written a lot about how the main motivation for me during this time was my kids. I could not imagine how it would have been if I had not been allowed to see them or my parenting time had been reduced, or they were ordered to be moved away from me to another city. It would be even more devastating if the only reason for this was because it would be better for them not to be around the parent of the “cancer world.” I am not a forensic psychologist, but I am a mother and Dr. Brantley’s statement seems ludicrous. Of course children want a normal childhood- don’t we all? But life happens, and sometimes parents get sick. Sometimes they have cancer, sometimes other diseases, and sometimes they die. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that kids want to reduce contact with their sick or dying parent. Most kids who can understand that someday Mom or Dad may die from cancer, I would imagine, would want to spend as much time as possible with the parent. It’s human nature. Kids aren’t any different.

I’m not saying kids should be there to the bitter end, or witness health conditions beyond what they can handle, but I was always keenly aware of how my health could be affecting my boys. I called my ex-husband one evening and told him I was not well enough to take care of the kids for a few days, and it wasn’t good for them to see me that sick. I didn’t try to keep my kids with me, and my ex-husband and his family made arrangements for care for the boys for a few days during this time. At other times, I stayed with my dad and step-mom so they could help and provide support. I have a hard time imagining any parent fighting a disease would think or do otherwise if their health started to jeopardize their children’s outlooks or feelings.

After thinking, discussing, and reading more about this case, and having gone through the divorce procedure in Colorado, with a judge at a trial to decide many issues in my divorce, I have a hard time believing the sole reason for the judge’s decision was only because of cancer. It appears it did come into play, but we frankly do not have all the facts. In my experience, (and the judge in my case was a woman) courts do not want to separate kids and parents. They are not looking to split up mothers and children, and fathers and children. But when there are circumstances that warrant it, they make their decisions with the information they have, and sadly sometimes, those decisions can only be based on information that is proven (such as a police report in the case of a domestic violence allegation.) If there is no evidence, then the judge can’t consider it.

I have not had to face the prognosis that my cancer was terminal. I don’t attempt to explain how that would feel as a mother with two children. Not knowing if you have a year, or six months, or ten years, would be agonizing. I did think about dying though, and what would happen to my children. If my children’s father lived in another state, and was not planning on moving back to the state where I lived, the reality is, when I died, they would be in the care of their father. For me personally, I would feel more at peace and feel like I did everything I could for my children if I helped them as much as I could with that transition with whatever time I had left. Cancer isn’t fair, and divorce isn’t fair. The toll it can take on children is the most unfair part of it all.

This case is definitely complicated, yielding a lot of mixed feelings for parents going through a divorce with custody issues, who have or have had less than ideal health. I hope the parties involved can come to some sort of compromise that will keep the children’s need for their mother in their lives, while she is doing well and fighting cancer, while also being realistic and planning for the future. Cancer or not, divorce or not, the children need to come first.