Back in 2003, 32-year-old Cathy Gabrielsen couldn’t have been happier, with husband Scott (former captain of the Wings lacrosse team and a vice president at Binswanger Companies), two young sons, and a lovely home in West Chester. But her life was about to change. Gabrielsen would lose her right breast—but gain a renewed sense of purpose, founding Cuddle My Kids, a nonprofit organization that provides free in-home childcare for women undergoing cancer treatment.
MLT: How did you find out you had breast cancer?
CG: For a number of months, I felt pain and thought it was an infection related to breastfeeding. I was young and didn’t have a family history of breast cancer, so my OB/GYN thought it was probably nothing. But my right breast was enlarged and uncomfortable, so he did an ultrasound, then did a mammogram just to be extra cautious. That’s when it showed up: ductal carcinoma. My breast was so sore because the cancer had already spread through my whole breast. My doctors at HUP decided that the best course of action was to have a mastectomy.
MLT: Was it difficult telling your husband you’d be losing one of your breasts?
CG: I was so scared that he wasn’t going to feel the way he did about me when I was healthy, had two breasts and was a size 2. It feels kind of vain to say this, but I really was worried that my body was going to be unattractive to Scott. I think that’s something many young women with cancer worry about and are afraid to discuss. But my husband was right next to me all the way. After the surgery, Scott emptied my drains, cleaned my bandages, washed me—the whole deal. I’ll never forget the day we decided I had to see what I looked like. Scott undid my bandages, and I looked at myself. He said, “You are so beautiful.” I don’t know if he meant it, but it meant the world to me.
MLT: What was the hardest part of the experience?
CG: It wasn’t the pain; it was seeing how the cancer affected my kids. I needed to be a mom and feel like a mom. I went to Chuck E. Cheese’s two days after the surgery because I refused to let the pain take over. But that was not good for my healing process. After living through that, I investigated what support options exist for women my age. I realized that there were services for children and for older people, but not for women who have young kids. That’s where I got the idea for Cuddle My Kids.
MLT: What does Cuddle My Kids provide?
CG: We do in-house visits that are 90 minutes twice a week for six to eight weeks; people can re-enroll if they feel the need. We do creative play with the kids, including arts and crafts, games, and all sorts of fun activities. They love it; they sit by the door and wait for us with a sippy cup and Goldfish. When we leave, they sleep because they’re so tired. We work with kids of all ages, from infants to teenagers. There’s no income requirement; you don’t have to be poor to need this. Just because you have financial resources doesn’t mean you have emotional support. That’s what we help provide.