Stories of Hope

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The Power of a Passionate Volunteer

Article date: May 8, 2003

McHugh Family Image

Many people may not know their purpose in life, but I do. I know I've made a difference.


Editor's Note: Chris McHugh died April 2, 2003. She spent the last few years squeezing into every spare minute her work against cancer, with the conviction that she could help improve life for cancer patients and speed the development of new cancer drugs. McHugh's family and friends continue her work against cancer, a last request from Chris.

When Chris McHugh was growing up in DeForest, Wisconsin, nice girls didn't bring up religion or politics. Then in her mid-30s she developed a passion for fighting cancer that drove her to talk about politics almost every day since. She even introduced an irreverent, but funny product line to raise money for cancer, which includes the popular, "I'm having a no hair day!" lapel button.

"They used to say a lady doesn't talk about politics and religion. I told my mother, 'Well, look at me now!'" In about five years of volunteer work, McHugh saw first-hand how political achievements made life better for people with cancer, and that fueled her passion for the cause.

The setback that turned this busy hair salon owner and mother of two to volunteering could easily have sent her into a deep depression. At age 34, she was diagnosed with Stage IV inflammatory breast cancer. "When I was diagnosed they said I had a 30% chance of living a year and a half. But statistics are for the general population. They don't know my family or my faith," she explained. "I had to make a conscious decision (to choose hope)."

Treatment included chemotherapy and what she calls a "drive-through double mastectomy"--in and out of the hospital the same day. She pointed out with pride that insurance companies must now pay for a longer hospital stay. McHugh compared her return to a normal life to soldiers coming back from Vietnam. "I didn't know how to come back. Volunteering was a selfish thing at first…a transition for me back to normal."

The same year she was diagnosed with breast cancer, 1997, McHugh joined a small Relay For Life fund-raising walk in her hometown of DeForest (population 7,000). By 1998 she was marching on the mall in Washington, D.C. with other ACS volunteers to demand faster approval of cancer drugs.

She was one of only eight survivors that took a lap in that first Relay For Life and remembers thinking, "Where is everyone else?" The event raised $18,000. McHugh threw herself into it for the next few years (between ongoing cancer treatments) and quickly boosted the take to over $100,000. This year more than 80 cancer survivors took a lap. McHugh attended the ACS Celebration on the Hill in September as an official ACS ambassador from Wisconsin.

Why Patients Wear Beepers at one Wisconsin Hospital

McHugh's buttons, "I'm having a no hair day," "Hair today, gone tomorrow," and "Cancer Sucks," brought laughter to the normally quiet chemotherapy waiting room. She joined the University of Wisconsin Cancer Center Advisory Board, the only patient member, and pushed for changes in patient care. "Time is valuable to patients. A 2-hour treatment used to take 8 hours to get. Now we have pagers so you can get up and walk away."

After seeing an 80-year-old widower shuffled through treatment without a hug, a touch, or a smile, McHugh wanted to advocate for elderly patients who couldn't do so themselves. She organized workshops for doctors and staff about hope, love, and faith. She included the hospital's head doctor as a speaker and attendance was very good.

Sitting on committees, marching at capitols, speaking to dozens of groups may sound like bureaucratic drudgery to some people, but it became extremely rewarding for McHugh, as well as a distraction from her ongoing battle with inflammatory breast cancer. Over about five years she had more than 50 rounds of chemotherapy, the double mastectomy, a bone marrow transplant, Interleukin-II injections, and Herceptin, a breakthrough in cancer medicine at the time.

"I was in Washington, D.C. in September 1998 with the American Cancer Society the day that Herceptin was approved," said McHugh. "It's been a miracle drug for me."

"Five years ago I was treated with 20-year-old drugs," said McHugh, who believed research could move more quickly with full government funding. "Molecular treatments are going to happen within the next 5 years and public policy must be in place now," she wrote on the web site for Choose Hope, Inc., the business she started with two friends.

A Cinderella Dress and a Dream

Two hundred people and a film crew joined McHugh on a Saturday night in November, 2002 for her 40th birthday costume party. Her husband, Mike, started talking about the party soon after McHugh was diagnosed in 1997, as a goal for the future. McHugh didn't feel great that Saturday, but she threw on a Cinderella dress and a blonde wig and had a blast.

With the party past, McHugh talked about new goals and dreams for the future: "Even if I couldn't make a cure happen, I would sure like to make cancer a treatable disease like diabetes," she said. In the meantime, she was working to get the Eliminate Colorectal Cancer Bill passed in the U.S. Congress. "We've finally come out of the closet and been able to say "breast," now we want to say "colorectal" without cringing."