Like most mothers and daughters Anita Conner and her daughter, Kerri Conner-Matchett, have a lot in common.
The two Philadelphia-area women graduated from Penn State University; are both certified public accountants, and both were diagnosed with advanced breast cancer on the same day of the same month, ten years apart.
"The first thing that I thought was, ‘Oh God, I gave it to my daughter’; I thought it was very ironic. It was hard for me because you never want to see your children go through something like that,” said Anita Conner.
Conner, 56, says it was April 16, 1998 when she received the devastating news that a doctor had misdiagnosed a lump found in one of her breasts two years earlier. By the time she got a biopsy, the cancer had spread to 75 percent of her cells.
"My prognosis wasn't good. The doctor prepared my family for the worst. Like everybody else, I had my own pity party, asking God, 'Why me? Why me?' and then I just asked God to let me live long enough to raise up my kids and to help somebody else going through the same thing,” said Conner.
Just 10 years later, Kerri was about to face her own battle with the disease.
She was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer on April 16, 2008. The news was especially distressing because she was tested for the gene after her mother’s diagnosis and doctors told her that she did not have it.
Kerri, now 36, decided to begin getting annual mammograms when she was 29 due to her mom’s ordeal. (Most women are encouraged to get mammograms beginning at age 40 and continue annually.)
At age 30, she and her husband decided to have a child. Kerri says she did not get a mammogram that year because she was breastfeeding. It was the same year she got cancer.
"I could just literally just see the lump in the top area of my chest. My first reaction was more of a vain reaction, after seeing what my mother had went through. I never really had a doubt that I was not going to get through it. I think my thinking was that I was going to lose my hair and that my skin was going to change colors that I was going to lose my breasts," said Conner-Matchett. “There was a real possibility that I could be gone and that my daughter would not have a mother.”
Kerri and her mother’s age gap also made a difference in the treatment they received.
Anita Conner underwent an aggressive treatment called stem cell replacement – doctors removed all of her white stem cells out of her body, put in a lethal dose of chemotherapy and then replaced all the stem cells back in her. That treatment is no longer offered.
“I think the hardest thing for me is that my mom's treatment process was so hard. I did not know that I would be able to take it as strongly as she did but thanks to the advancement in cancer I did not have to do nearly as much as she did.
Kerri underwent two years of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and reconstruction. She is now a 5-year survivor.
"I just think that one of the blessings of my mother having it before me was that I kind of knew what to expect and I wasn't as scared as so many women are because I encountered it and kind of knew what I would be going through," said Conner-Matchett.
Anita Conner is celebrating 15 years being cancer-free.
“God spared my life for a reason and I am here to help someone else. Without the divine intervention of God I would not be here to share my story,” said Conner.
Connor’s ordeal inspired her to create PraiseistheCure.org in 2005. It's a faith-based outreach program that helps to spread awareness about the disease specifically to African-American women where she noticed the disparity in early diagnosis and survival rates.
Now in its eighth year, her organization reaches more than 20,000 women throughout Philadelphia and surrounding areas annually, providing free mammograms for the uninsured. Praise is the Cure also runs an annual health fair. This year their "Week of Hope" kicks off Sunday September 29 and runs through Saturday, October 5 at various locations across the city.
"We want people to be inspired and educated and to learn how to take care of themselves,” We need to get our mammograms so that we catch it earlier, said Conner.
Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer among women. African-American women die from the disease at a rate 35% higher than average, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The Conners want to reduce such disparity.
Both women say they are working to create a community with fewer victims and more breast cancer survivors by helping women get screenings and treatments.
"Breast cancer is not a death sentence, we are proof you can survive,” said Anita Conner.
And proof that even cancer can’t break the bond between a mother and her daughter.
"Our faith is one of the main reasons that we got through it, our faith and our attitude," said Conner-Matchett.
**The weeklong event takes place at various locations across the city. For more information click here.
Contact Danielle Johnson at 610.668.5705, Danielle.Johnson@nbcuni.com