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A strong band of women with Hart

When Esther Hart sees other mothers with cancer at Princess Margaret Hospital she feels like running up to them, arms open wide, to give them a hug.

Hart, 38, is a colorectal cancer patient. Her daughter Sophie is 2. Hart feels an immediate connection to women like herself, who handle cancer therapy and motherhood with a brave face.

I first encountered her last spring, while researching a news article on prohibitively expensive drugs not paid for by our public health system.

Her story is as compelling as it is terrifying. After repeated trips to the emergency room, Hart was diagnosed with advanced stage colon cancer when Sophie was 5 months old. The disease, which doesn’t run in her family, had spread to her left ovary, fallopian tube, uterus and liver. She was told she had two years to live.

She has passed that two-year milestone — a testament to her determination to live long enough to see her daughter make it to Grade 1. Hart’s journey, what her dear friends call her "inconceivable exploration" of life and death, has not been easy. She has survived many surgeries, hospitalizations and gruelling rounds of chemotherapy.

But separate from the cancer is an inspiring tale of female friendship and a group of women she calls "the mommies" who help pull her through.

"They are there in so many ways for me," Hart says by phone from her parents home north of the city, where she often goes to rest after chemo.

Hart’s midwives first put together the gang of Kristen, Esther, Terri, Natalie and Michelle. The west-end women all had babies born within a month of each other.

The "mommies" became fast friends. Like so many other mother’s groups across the city, they met every week, taking turns gathering in each other’s houses. Everybody brought treats. While the babies slept or nursed, they exchanged stories, shared ideas and watched each others children grow into toddlers.

The mommies knew Hart was unwell during her pregnancy. But when they found out she had cancer, they all felt the blow.

"I spent a few days walking around like a zombie," says Kristen Colle. Hart was suddenly out of touch, hospitalized for emergency surgery. When she got home from hospital, the mommies were there.

"Things were dropped off at the door," says Hart. "Whether it be a little treat, a plant, a book that might help me. (There were) lots of phone calls to see how I was. There were offers of support — to drop Sophie off at any time. Dinners. You name it. Everything came my way, everything I could ask for."

Fast-forward weeks later and another get-together. Hart told the mommies her treatment options were narrowing. There was hope a new drug called Avastin could give her a few more months with her family. The only problem was, the drug cost upwards of $30,000. The Ontario government currently doesn’t cover its prohibitive costs.

The mommies got serious. They couldn’t help Hart medically, but they could raise money. They divvied up the chores and set a plan in motion. A bank account was set up. Family members were recruited to help. A letter of appeal was sent out to "everybody we knew," says Colle. They created a website with details on how to donate.

The mommies, and Hart, were astounded as they watched momentum grow in their west-end Toronto community.

"I had people knocking on my front door," says Colle, a mother of two. What was most touching, were the number of strangers — many of them mothers themselves — who reached out to help.

"We were so surprised by the response. Friends, acquaintances, some complete strangers," says Hart. "A lot of them were mothers who sent $20, $40, $50, saying, `I’m a mom, too. I hope this helps you.’ It’s hard not to cry reading these notes. It’s overwhelming."

The letters help Hart spiritually, giving her strength when she feels like she can’t go on. "In her deepest, darkest moments, when she thinks the chemo is killing her, she reads them," says Colle.

The mommies raised enough money to pay for the first round of treatment. Now they are making sure there’s enough for round two.

"The hope is she has one more treatment after this and the doctors think she’ll have some good remission time," says Colle. Donations have come from people who have know Hart at different points in her life, the surgeon from her first cancer surgery, nurses who’ve cared for her, old friends.

They’ve all formed a web of support around Hart.

"You feel surrounded by an army of people. It is really comforting," says Hart.

And the army is also supporting each other. Colle’s favourite email is from one of Hart’s surgeons, a woman, who told Colle she’s proud to be in the company of such strong women.

We all are.

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