Holding Out Hope

Kristin Connor helps families cope with childhood cancer

Though Kristin Connor, executive director of CURE Childhood Cancer, interacts with families facing the dreaded disease on a daily basis, it’s difficult for her to view her life as anything but blessed. “I think I’m the luckiest person in the universe,” she says. “It’s a blessing to be able to walk through those valleys with these families.”

Connor understands the valleys because she and her family walked through one of their own.

A native Atlantan, Connor, 49, attended Lakeside High, graduated from Vanderbilt University and earned a law degree from the University of Georgia School of Law before embarking on a career in business litigation at the Atlanta firm Arnall, Golden & Gregory, LLP.

“I was a business litigator, and I loved it,” she says. “I really enjoyed coming up with the best argument on behalf of my client.” Her husband, Mike, was a court administrator, and the couple had a young son, Ryan.

Life seemed rosy until 2001, when a fetal ultrasound during her second pregnancy showed a cancerous mass on the spine of her unborn child. Three weeks after the ultrasound, Connor gave birth to her son, Brandon, who was soon diagnosed with a rare form of pediatric cancer called neuroblastoma.

Doctors advised the Connors to hold off on treatment, surgery and chemotherapy, to give the cancer an opportunity to regress on its own. After waiting two years, they decided to proceed with a delicate operation attempting removal of the tumor. But the night before surgery, an MRI showed that the tumor, present on an MRI just three months earlier, was all but gone. Doctors speculated about what might have happened but never reached a medical conclusion.

Connor called it a miracle, and still does. Brandon is now a healthy 6-year-old and is considered cancer-free. But Connor was changed by the experience, especially when it came to her profession. “After Brandon was cured, I had a hard time functioning in the professional world,” she says. “It was difficult feeling empathy for my clients, especially when I considered the ways they were spending their time and money.”

She tried to return to a “normal” life, but knew she wanted to find a way to use her skills and influence to help other families facing the valley of childhood cancer. In September 2004 Connor took a leave of absence from her firm to become senior vice president of community and business development of CureSearch, a national childhood cancer organization. She had found her new life’s work. “I believe that my training [in law] taught me to be an advocate,” she says.

Her job put her in contact with Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom Glavine and his wife, Christine, both staunch advocates of funding research for childhood cancer. Through Glavine’s connections, Connor enlisted Major League Baseball in the childhood cancer battle. The MLB Commissioner’s Initiative for Kids raised millions of dollars, but Connor wanted to work with families.

CURE Childhood Cancer, a Georgia-based nonprofit, was looking for a leader and in March 2006, Connor became its executive director. Founded in 1975 by parents, CURE has raised millions of research dollars for the Aflac Cancer Center Blood Disorders Service at Child-ren’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University School of Medi-cine. The organization recently an-nounced five new research grants totaling $1.2 million.

Most of the research money goes to Atlanta-based projects. “Ninety percent of all children’s cancer patients [in Georgia] have all or part of their treatment in Atlanta,” Connor says.

Providing emergency patient support is another significant facet of CURE’s mission. “Our families are hurting, many financially,” Connor says. CURE helps pay for gas, temporary housing and other needs. September, designated National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, will see public service announcements by comedian Jeff Foxworthy and several events, including two golf tournaments, one hosted by Tom Glavine. A luncheon, the third annual Tribute to Our Quiet Heroes, hosted by Chris Glavine, honors mothers of children with cancer and those who have lost children to cancer.

“Please keep doing what you’re doing,” a grieving mother told Connor recently. There’s her motivation. “In the midst of grief I hold out hope,” she says. “I live my life with much more hope than ever before.”

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