Cancer became another beginning for this mother of two.
Chris McHugh raised eyebrows when she celebrated her third anniversary this past June with cake and balloons, smiles, and hugs. My doctor asked me why in the world I wanted to remember the anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis, McHugh laughs, but I want to because my whole perspective on life changed that day. Im a new person, and, better yet, Im still here!
McHugh was a 34-year-old mother of two with a thriving hair salon in DeForest, Wis., (pop. 6,262) when she was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in 1997. The rare, aggressive cancer has a much higher mortality rate than other forms of breast cancer, and McHughs case was considered terminal.
But McHugh is a fighter, and an incredibly positive, spiritual person. If doctors thought she had only a few months to live, shed just prove them wrong. For the next 15 months, McHugh remained upbeat despite a double mastectomy, stem cell transplant, chemotherapy, and radiation. She was determined not only to survive, but to help eradicate the disease and encourage others grappling with cancer.
Partnering with two friends, one of whom also suffered from breast cancer, she started Choose Hope Inc., a business that sells humorous and inspirational gifts for cancer patients. The gifts, available online at www.choosehope.com and in a smattering of breast prostheses boutiques across the nation, include clothing and buttons proclaiming everything from Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow and Im Having A No Hair Day, to Miracles Happen and the wildly popular Cancer Sucks.
They also market decorative candles, silk roses, angel items, and more. Better than 30 percent of the business profits have been donated to the American Cancer Society, the Breast Cancer Recovery Foundation, and the University of Wisconsin Comprehensive Cancer Center; the rest have been plowed back into the business.
But McHugh, still undergoing chemotherapy, didnt stop there. In 1997, the year she was diagnosed, her town of DeForest held its first Relay for Life eventa fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society in which participants walk or run continuously around a track for 18 hours in exchange for pledge money.
Thirteen teams signed up for DeForests first relay, which raised $18,000. Then McHugh got involved. With her assistance and spirit, participation vaulted to 50 teams in 1999 and proceeds climbed to $87,000. The relay last May raised an estimated $115,000, and is expected to be among the top 10 grossing events, per capita, in the nation for the third consecutive year.
Chris is such a wonderful role model, says Julie Larkin, co-chair of the 2000 event. Ive gone to many relay meetings where shes come that night, even though she had chemo that day. No matter how shes feeling, she keeps on going. Every day is a new day for her, and she makes the most of it.
McHugh estimates shes helped raise $500,000 for cancer research in the last three years between her business, the relays, and a host of other fund-raisers shes initiated. But shes just as proud that she has helped increase awareness about the disease and the importance of early detection. I want to show people that cancer is do-able, that you can survive and live a quality life, she says.
Its exactly this attitude that draws people to McHugh. When anyone in town gets a cancer diagnosis, the first thing they do now is call Chris, says Connie Tenjum, immediate past president of the DeForest Area Chamber of Commerce.
Between her fund-raising efforts and compassionate assistance to others who are suffering, McHugh has pulled the entire community together, Tenjum says. In recognition of this, the chamber recently awarded her the DeForest Area Chamber Community Person Award, the highest recognition it bestows upon an individual. The award is intended for chamber members; McHugh is the first outsider to receive it.
Chris has done so much for our community, we didnt care that she wasnt a chamber member, says Tenjum. Shes quite the asset.