Thousands rally behind ailing mom

She fights terminal cancer, and a ruling granting custody to her husband.

Staff WriterMay 22, 2011 

— When Alaina Giordano lost her custody dispute with Kane Snyder, her estranged husband, in a Durham County family court, she took her case to the global court of public opinion.

Through a blog, Facebook page and online petition, she honed her appeal: A Durham judge, she argued, was ripping away two children from a mother afflicted with advanced cancer and sending them to live with their father more than 800 miles away.

Hordes of sympathetic readers - mothers and others who had never met the ailing, alienated spouse - rallied to her cause. They bombarded Durham with a flurry of messages, calls and targeted complaints. Whether their pleas will have much impact in the courts is unknown.

Giordano, diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in February 2008, can appeal the ruling. She can ask for a stay that would allow her to retain primary custody of her children until the appeal is heard. But that request would first go before the judge who made the initial ruling.

Giordano, Snyder, their lawyers and the judge all declined to comment.

In many ways, the testy tug-of-war between Giordano and Snyder over their 11-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son embodies the classic push back of a bitter divorce. Allegations of adultery, abuse and bad parenting are lobbed from both sides.

What makes the case different, a battle royal that has attracted interest from people not connected to the warring couple, is the consideration of Giordano's terminal cancer.

Nancy Gordon, the Durham District Court judge who presided over the four-day custody hearing last month and awarded primary custody to Snyder, refers to Giordano's health in her lengthy ruling as "concerning to the court, in large part because the course of her disease is unknown."

"Even if she follows the directions of her care providers, and even if she is consistent in following her treatment regimen, whether and how quickly her health will deteriorate is unknown," Gordon wrote.

The judge considered testimony from a forensic psychiatrist whose research showed that children who have a parent with cancer need more contact with the non-ill parent.

"They divide their world into the cancer world and a free-of-cancer world," the judge wrote in her order. "Children want a normal childhood, and it is not normal with an ill parent. Contact with the non-ill parent normalizes the children's lives and allows them to go through developmental stages in an easier way with less school problems and with stable emotions."

Cancer strikes

But the case is more complex than a medical diagnosis.

Giordano and Snyder were married in Palmerton, Pa., in August 1999. Their daughter was born the next spring; a son followed in 2005.

The family of four moved to Durham in July 2008, when Snyder started classes for a master's degree in business at Duke University.

By that time, Giordano was having health problems. In 2000, she was misdiagnosed in Pennsylvania with lupus and fibromyalgia, according to the custody suit. A lump in her left breast had troubled her for years. A doctor told her on one occasion not to worry, that it was probably a cyst that needed to be drained, the suit says.

In 2005, after the birth of her son, a physician suggested that a larger lump in her right breast was mastitis, or inflammation of the mammary gland. It was not until December 2007, after she went for an ultrasound and biopsy, that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In February 2008, according to the custody suit, she had a lumpectomy and was told her nodes appeared free of cancer.

But Giordano remained concerned and insisted on full body scans in Pennsylvania, which eventually revealed stage 4 cancer, meaning the disease had spread to other parts of the body.

By the time the couple moved to Durham, Giordano was concerned that physicians in Allentown, Pa., had misdiagnosed her health problems over the years.

Though she started conventional treatment at Duke Hospital, she decided in November 2008 to pursue a protocol that included a macrobiotic diet, massage, physical and chiropractic therapies, yoga, Pilates, acupuncture, supplements and exercise.

Kids in the middle

In 2009, the couple's marriage was strained, according to the suit.

There were disagreements about whether the husband and wife were supportive of each other. They spent time apart in the summer. He worked in Atlanta. She took trips to Denver and California. The children spent time with grandparents in Pennsylvania.

By the fall, the couple were arguing in front of the children, according to the judge's ruling. One argument that occurred while the children were in school resulted in each getting arrested and spending a night in jail, according to the judge's order. The charges were dropped after mediation. Another incident resulted in each taking out a protective order against the other.

By October 2009, Giordano decided to look into conventional treatment again. A month later she discovered another lump in her breast. By January 2010, she had enrolled in a traditional program.

But husband and wife were living apart, sharing custody of the children through court-ordered arrangements.

There still was not harmony between the parents, according to the court documents. Some of their arguments occurred on school grounds and play fields, according to the judge's order.

In August, Snyder moved to Arlington Heights, Ill., outside Chicago, after getting a job with Sears. He then sought permanent custody.

As part of the custody review, a forensic psychology team at UNC-Chapel Hill was asked to evaluate the family. That evaluation played a part in Gordon's ruling.

The report noted that the parents "place their children in the middle of their divorce and unnecessarily expose them to the conflict so the children are compelled to choose sides. This exposure should cease because it is destructive to their social and emotional development."

Both parents, according to the evaluation, are "over-reactive and have difficulty expressing their anger and frustration to their children."

There were times, the evaluation says, when Giordano's cancer and need for quick treatment meant the children were left alone for extended periods before friends could step in. At the same time, they pointed out, she has a significant support system in Durham.

Answer isn't 'clear-cut'

In conclusion, the forensic psychology team recommended that with the parents living apart in different cities primary custody should go to the father. He is the sole financial provider for the family, according to the court documents.

The judge found that by all accounts, Giordano is "a capable, caring and loving mother who has an excellent relationship with her children."

During the hearing last month, one of the doctors who helped with the forensic evaluation testified that she struggled with the case. The judge's order points out that she said it was not "clear-cut," that she did not know for sure whether it would be better for the children to be with their mother in "the last year or years of her sickness." She testified that their decision "was definitely not foolproof."

That was when Giordano took her message to a wider court with the blog posting, "Say NO! to CANCER discrimination!" Thousands have joined a Facebook page supporting her, and even more have signed an online petition to the governor called "Do Not Allow NC Judge To Take Alaina Giordano's Children Just Because She Has Cancer."

Court officials in Durham worry that the whole story is not getting out. "The court of public opinion is not the way to appeal something," said Marcia Morey, a District Court judge not involved with the case.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4948

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