Tar Heel of the Week

Cancer victim turns disease, grief toward a better cause

CorrespondentSeptember 15, 2012 

HITCHCOCK2-THW-091412-HLL

Portrait of Orange county triathlete and cancer survivor Mandy Hitchcock, 35, a clinical assistant professor of law at UNC Friday, Sept. 14, 2012. Hitchcock had run two triathlons to raise money for research into blood cancers before she was diagnosed with a form of blood cancer. She kept her training throughout her chemo treatments this summer and is now in remission. Her blog and story has helped raise nearly sixty thousand dollars for cancer research.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com

  • Amanda S. ‘Mandy’ Hitchcock Born: Jan. 25, 1976, Little Rock, Ark. Residence: Chatham County Career: Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, UNC-Chapel Hill Education: B.A. Afro-American Studies and J.D., both from UNC-Chapel Hill Family: Husband, Ed Chaney; son, Jackson Team Stronger: To find out more or donate to Hitchcock’s team for the Sept. 22 Wilmington YMCA Triathlon, visit http://pages.teamintraining.org/nc/YMCATri12/stronger.

Mandy Hitchcock had no personal connection to leukemia or lymphoma when she first started raising money for research on these blood cancers at a Chapel Hill triathlon seven years ago.

She was just a month from her second charity triathlon when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, earlier this year. Suddenly, the cause she was working for became very personal.

But Hitchcock didn’t wallow in what she calls the “cruel irony” of her diagnosis. Instead, she trained for another triathlon during her chemotherapy treatments this summer, and redoubled her efforts to raise money and recruit other athletes.

Next weekend, Hitchcock will compete in the Wilmington YMCA Triathlon along with the 23 friends and family members that make up her “Team Stronger.” The team has raised more than $50,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Hitchcock’s cancer is now in remission. After her last chemotherapy treatment in August, she organized a charity concert and auction that raised $5,000.

“She has just been such an inspiration to so many people,” says Allison Standard, a friend and member of Team Stronger. “She’s found a way to take tragedy and turn it into something positive.”

Hitchcock says she earned the ability to power through adversity in a pair of tragedies she had already endured: the death of her mother at age 56 of cancer, and, most importantly, the sudden death of her 17-month old daughter, Hudson, of a blood infection two years ago.

At Hudson’s memorial service, Hitchcock talked about a ritual she had planned to start with her daughter in which they would try to find something good in every bad thing that happened to them.

“One good thing” became the name of the blog she started to work through her grief, and she says the idea has helped her through her own diagnosis.

“Finding that one good thing became the guiding principle of my life,” she says. “When I think about those good things and share them with other people, for me that is sharing her spirit, keeping her spirit alive.”

Death of a child

Hitchcock, who grew up in Charlotte, first joined “Team in Training,” the endurance sports program of the Leukemia & Lymphoma society, in 2005, when she was in law school at UNC Chapel Hill. She was drawn to the program by the intense training that she figured would help her prepare for her first triathlon.

“It was a good cause, and that was nice,” she says. “But that was about it.”

She competed in that triathlon in memory of her mother, who had died of a different kind of cancer years before.

Then, in 2010, Hudson succumbed to a bacterial infection that had quickly turned into meningitis.

“It was very sudden,” Hitchcock says. “She was fine and then she wasn’t, and there wasn’t anything they could do about it.”

The experience changed Hitchcock’s life immeasurably. For much of the next year, her grief was all-encompassing. She never returned to her job with the Washington, D.C., public defender’s office.

Her sorrow influenced her decision to return home to North Carolina, where most of her family lives; she recently started a job teaching at the UNC law school.

As she pulled out of her grief, and after she had her son, she started to think about another triathlon, mainly as a way to adopt a healthy lifestyle, in part to ward off cancer, which has affected many people in her family.

She signed up in December for an April triathlon and was training when she found a lump in her neck in that turned out to be Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I remember saying, ‘Apparently the prize you get for raising money is your own personal lymphoma diagnosis,’ ” she says.

But her dismay was soon overshadowed by her will to fight. She was told her chances of complete recovery were very good, so she steeled herself to go through the ordeal.

She competed in the April triathlon in honor of her daughter, and says Hudson’s death had already made her feel closer to the cause she was supporting, particularly the idea of helping children with leukemia.

“I was thinking about all those parents who are fighting for their kids who have cancer, and I know if I had been able to do that for my daughter, I would have wanted all of the support and research money possible thrown at the problem,” she says.

She wanted to keep training, for both her mental and physical health. She thought she might do just part of this month’s triathlon, or walk it if need be. After the first few treatments, she realized she might be well enough to keep training, and she did.

When she started to lose her hair, she cropped it close and dyed it purple, her team color.

During this time, she ran across a video of children with cancer. In particular, she recalls one young girl with no hair holding a sign that said, simply, “Hope.”

She was so moved that she decided to ramp up her fundraising efforts for the race. She pitched it on her blog, asking everyone she knew to not only donate, but to compete with her. The response, in both team members and donations, exceeded her expectations.

“Friends from all over are doing the race,” she says. “I was just completely blown away.”

More public service

Hitchcock’s recent fundraising caps a long commitment to public service. When she came to UNC-Chapel Hill as an undergraduate, she was active in the school’s Campus Y, which coordinates volunteer projects in the university’s surrounding communities.

She graduated with highest honors and went to work as a seventh grade teacher in a high-poverty Durham school. The experience instilled in her a desire to remedy the problems that made it so difficult for many of these students to succeed in school.

She took her next job, with a public policy think-tank focused on education issues, hoping to have a broader impact in solving those issues. After a few years, she decided to earn her law degree to widen that impact even further.

While in law school, she headed up the school’s pro bono program, directing projects offering free legal aid to needy defendants. Standard met Hitchcock on one such project in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; the law students were helping mentally ill defendants who were being held in prisons instead of mental health facilities.

After graduation, she and her husband, whom she met at the law school, endowed a fund to support public service among students there.

While she has long felt the need to help others, she says her daughter’s death has only strengthened that impulse.

“When I think of the trajectory of my life since my daughter died, I really think that it’s all been about her,” Hitchcock says. “My story has really been her story.”

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