Daniel Rubin: Survivor's children's book tackles breast cancer

Kerri Conner with copies of her book. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)

There's a scene in Kerri Conner's children's book that's ripped from real, raw life.

By the third chemo treatment, her thick, black hair had started coming out in clumps, so she asked her father to shave her head with his clippers.

That afternoon in the summer of 2008, she drove to the Meadowlane Montessori School in Jenkintown for pickup, and the thought came to mind that her daughter, 2 1/2-year-old Madison, would see her and scream.

But when the girl ran to her, she said, "Mommy, I like your haircut." Conner was so stunned she didn't have to fight back the tears that have welled up every time she's thought about that moment since.

"I believe our children do try to protect us," she said.

She spent the next year thinking about how to repay the favor.

Mothers and breast cancer was something she knew a lot about. She was fresh out of Howard University, studying for her CPA exam and working in the family accounting firm in 1998 when her mother, Anita, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of the disease.

High-dose chemotherapy, radiation, and an experimental stem-cell transplant followed. Doctors said there was little else to do for the woman but pray. They prayed a lot.

Three years ago marked the 10th anniversary of her mother's diagnosis, and the elder Conner was doing fine - "still here, still bossing us around," Kerri Conner said. Anita and Kerri Conner were serving as cochairs of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the annual May marathon to benefit breast cancer research.

One day that April, while taking a shower, Kerri felt a lump in her left breast. She was nine years younger than her mother had been when diagnosed. Because of her mother's bout, Kerri felt she was high risk and began having mammograms at age 29. She had another the next year, but at 31 became pregnant and so wasn't tested. The next year she was breast-feeding, and doctors told her she was at less risk for that sort of cancer.

Her next mammogram, at 33, revealed three lumps in her left breast. By then, the cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes.

Kerri thought of her own daughter, Madison. How could she make what happened less scary, more helpful?

What she came up with captures it all, the struggle to lift her daughter into the bath or dress her in the morning, the changes in mood and appearance. She turned it into something uplifting for children whose lives have been upended by cancer in the house.

The book is called My Mommy Has Breast Cancer, But She is OK!

The writing came fast - "it's my story," she said. She hired two graphic artists she knew from fund-raisers to do the drawings.

She chose a butterfly - a symbol of delicacy, resilience, and change that most children study in school - to express what having cancer is like. Despite their fragility, butterflies can travel thousands of miles in their lifetimes.

Her book is in its second printing - with about 1,700 copies in circulation. Five percent of the proceeds from sales were to go to the George E. Thorne Development Center, which Anita Conner founded to motivate women to protect themselves from the disease that will threaten one in eight of them. But so far, she's given all the proceeds to the center. Not great business, but Kerri Conner doesn't care. You can read more about her book at mymommyhasbreastcancer.org.

She's been making presentations at schools and churches, and she's been asked whether she has another book in her. She might - something for children whose mothers don't survive the cancer.

Again, her story would borrow from the butterfly.

"I think of them as angels that God gives us to remember those we lost," she said. "Sometimes everything is not OK."


Contact columnist Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

or @danielrubin on Twitter. Read his blog at philly.com/blinq.