Jenice Armstrong: Mom, daughter hosting Praise for the Cure this weekend

Kerri Marie Conner (left), daughter Madison, and mother Anita T. Conner, at home.
Kerri Marie Conner (left), daughter Madison, and mother Anita T. Conner, at home.
Posted: September 29, 2010

ANITA T. Conner and her daughter Kerri Marie have shared practically everything. Both were cheerleaders when they attended Abington High School. They pledged the same sorority in college and each went on to become a certified public accountant. They work together and live in the same Elkins Park neighborhood.

And they were both diagnosed with breast cancer on April 16, 10 years apart. Mom was diagnosed in 1998; daughter in 2008.

This weekend, the mother-daughter duo again will be in lockstep as they host their annual event, Praise Is the Cure: A Weekend of Hope and Healing, during which they'll bus about 200 homeless-shelter residents to the Mount Airy Church of God in Christ for free breast-cancer screenings. The two-day event also will include a pamper party with massages and reflexology treatments for breast-cancer survivors and activities for male caregivers. The Conners' goal: To encourage African-American women to get breast- cancer screenings and treatment.

Black women often don't fit the profile of a typical breast-cancer patient. Although they are less likely to get breast cancer than their white counterparts, when it strikes it often happens earlier and is more aggressive. At the same time, African-Americans are less likely to get mammograms because of unequal access to health care and lingering mistrust of health-care institutions. And when women are screened, it's because a doctor has detected a mass instead of their having regular screenings.

Meanwhile, a government task force's recent recommendation that routine mammogram screening begin at 50 instead of at an earlier age doesn't necessarily apply to higher-risk groups. No wonder women are confused about when and how often they need to be screened. In Anita's case, for example, her gynecologist didn't think the hard lump she discovered was significant.

"The doctor said it was a cyst or something. I was 38 years old," she recalled. "The lump kept growing, so [two years later] they decided to remove the lump. During that process, they discovered it had spread to three-quarters of my lymph nodes."

She underwent a radical mastectomy and a hysterectomy. Her prognosis wasn't good. She endured high-level chemotherapy, radiation and a stem-cell transplant that left her weak, drained and immune-compromised. She lost weight, and all of her hair and her skin became discolored.

"For me, I had to just keep working. I never stopped working. Most of my clients never knew I was ill," said Anita, who has offices in Elkins Park and on Germantown Avenue. "I worked as much as I could. I had to act like I was normal. I had to act like I was living and that's what helped me get through it. Even when I was in the hospital, my staff brought work to me."

Her mother's diagnosis and subsequent treatment had a profound impact on Kerri, who began getting mammograms at age 29. She also became a breast-health advocate among her family and friends and began organizing fundraisers to raise money for breast-cancer research. She and her mother became regulars at the annual Race for the Cure and co-chaired the race in 2008.

Kerri often joined her mother at various churches where they would give short speeches about their experiences. When it was Kerri's turn at the podium, she would always end with an anecdote about seeing a little girl in the Race for the Cure with a T-shirt and her mother's picture on it with the words that she was doing it in memory of her mom.

"I would end [my speech] saying, 'I always want to make sure that my daughter is not the one wearing the pink flier in memory of me,' " Kerri said.

Then Kerri became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. At the time, her doctor told her that she didn't have to worry about getting breast cancer.

"I told them I hadn't been [for a mammogram] and they told me don't worry about it for right now because you're breast-feeding," she said. "I didn't think anything. I was like, 'Oh, OK.' That was fine with me. My other mammograms always came out perfectly fine. I just wanted to make sure that I did ask about it."

Then she started experiencing discharge from her breasts, which her doctor attributed to breast-feeding. However, before she weaned her daughter, the 32-year-old mother began noticing that her "body was doing different things" and that there was a lump on her chest. Because of its position, she wasn't alarmed.

By the time she had an ultrasound and a mammogram, the news was bad. She had not one but three cancerous tumors, and the disease had spread to her lymph nodes the way it had in her mother's case. Kerri underwent a double mastectomy and began the first of two rounds of chemotherapy and also underwent 30 radiation treatments. She received her last, and, she hopes, final, chemotherapy treatment on Thursday. She still takes the breast-cancer drug Tamoxifen and will for the next three years.

"All I know is that it's scary. My mom got it at 41. I got it eight years younger at 33. I'm really concerned for my daughter," Kerri told me. "I think about it often. I've asked her doctors about it . . . I'm just very concerned about it. She's only 4. They say I can't really be concerned about it until she's in her 20s. She'll probably start getting screened at 23 so I hope by then, they have some type of cure.

"When that happened my mom thought about it and said that God is trying to use us for something. I don't know any other way to explain that this is what we were called to do," Kerri said. "I was driving down the street and she said, 'I really believe He was trying to use us for something.' I remember days when I didn't feel good from the chemo treatment and she would say, 'Come on, let's go. We have to do this radio interview. We have to get the word out.' "

And together they would go.

For more information about Praise Is the Cure, log onto Saturday's event at Mount Airy Church of God in Christ, 6401 Ogontz Ave., includes a health fair, a Real Men Wear Pink forum, a Survivor's Pamper Party and more, is free and open to the public. Reservations (call 215-635-1025) for mammograms are encouraged.

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