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Family fight: Daughter diagnosed with cancer after helping mom beat disease 4 times

Staff Photos: Jason Braverman. Gina Ford, right, reads a message on a card given to her by the American Cancer Society while getting chemotherapy last week at Eastside Medical with her mother, Sandy Hamrick by her side. Hamrick has had reoccurring cancer four times in the last 17 years. Now, she fights the disease with her daughter.

Staff Photos: Jason Braverman. Gina Ford, right, reads a message on a card given to her by the American Cancer Society while getting chemotherapy last week at Eastside Medical with her mother, Sandy Hamrick by her side. Hamrick has had reoccurring cancer four times in the last 17 years. Now, she fights the disease with her daughter.

... have the love of family and friends as your support group. They can lift you up so high, and the days just pass by so much faster ... No one fights alone!

Gina Ford celebrated a birthday Wednesday.

Friends and family members brought her cupcakes, flowers and balloons. The now-42-year-old accepted hugs and read birthday cards. She smiled through the pain.

As she moved, a series of tubes followed her arms, dragged along like the unmanned strings of a marionette. Conversations were interrupted by the nondescript beeping of medical machinery.

For four hours, poison poured into her veins.

Ford has breast cancer. It is in both breasts, her lymph nodes and her bones. Today is her birthday. It is also a day for chemotherapy.

Another woman in the room at Eastside Medical Center, on another bed, hooked up to another machine, knows something of her struggle -- she's being treated as well.

Then again, so does Sandy Hamrick, Gina Ford's mother. Hamrick, 65, has battled breast cancer off and on for the last 17 years. Four separate times she's heard the words, "You have cancer."

Make that five.

"No mother wants to hear it, no woman wants to hear it, that 'you have cancer,'" Hamrick said. "In all honesty, all I could say was, 'Let me have it. Let me have it. I've already been there. I can handle it.'"

"Not my baby girl. Lord give it to me."

My journey is far from over and I intend to fight with all the strength I have. I know I am not alone.

Gina Ford did not, and does not, have health insurance. When the divorced mother of two discovered the lump in her left breast, it took four months to get an appointment somewhere, anywhere, that would take her.

"We were just out of luck," Hamrick said.

Said Ford: "Not being insured, I just felt like for sure this was going to be my death sentence."

Thanks to a connection with Hamrick's former employer and emergency Medicaid assistance, Dr. Victor Pavanni and the Gwinnett Health Department finally saw her in March. The news came in April, and it was not happy. The lump Ford had found some five months earlier was bilateral, Stage IV breast cancer, and had spread to her lymph nodes and bones.

It left mother and daughter to wonder.

"It just hurts," Hamrick said. "It hurts so bad that I can say a lot of, 'Why didn't we do so-and-so sooner, why didn't we find help sooner?"

Hamrick was initially diagnosed with breast cancer herself in 1994. An annual mammogram found a spot in her right breast, which eventually led to a lumpectomy and radiation treatment.

For a decade, the coast was clear. In July 2004, the cancer "returned with a vengeance."

The new diagnosis was Stage IV ductal carcinoma, and the course of action was a double mastectomy and months of pain, treatments and surgeries. In 2007 it came again. In 2008 it reappeared once more, this time in Hamrick's left-side lymph nodes.

Surgery and 25 more rounds of radiation followed. Though she remains on oral medication, Hamrick's last cancer treatment was 18 months ago.

Ford -- along with sister Karen Cash -- was there all along, with a word, a ride, a hug, anything. Cancer-free herself, now it's Hamrick's turn.

"The roles are reversed right now, completely," Ford said. "She is my sole caregiver. Honestly I don't know how to put it into words."

"Right now at this very moment, she has completely stopped everything that she has been doing," she added. "She's just given herself to me, to whatever I need. I don't know what I would do without her."

Ford's 17-year-old son lives with his father in Florida, while her 19-year-old daughter resides in Connecticut with her Navy husband. Ford was forced to leave her job last October, just before discovering the lump.

She has no car.

That leaves Hamrick to do what she can. She drives her daughter to appointments, lends her ear, holds her hand. Hamrick, Ford and Cash wear matching, bright pink shirts that say only "believe" to Ford's chemotherapy treatments.

"She hears things like inspired, courage, warrior, and knows that she does represent that," Hamrick said. "I'm proud of her and I think she does have a lot of me in her. And we both have a lot of hope."

When the treatment is over, how do I go on with my life? Not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. You have to learn to cope with the disease, learn not to walk on eggshells daily.

Everything Ford knows about battling cancer, about staying strong as the world falls down, she learned from her mother.

"She tells me, 'Mom, even before I had cancer I watched you and I saw your strength and your courage,'" an emotional Hamrick said.

Ford and Hamrick have each tested positive for the BRCA2 gene, a "susceptibility protein" that is largely unknown to the public but can go a long way toward predicting a woman's chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer.

They both stress the importance of testing and "not delaying" early-detection measures like mammograms. Cash will be tested for BRCA2 soon.

The American Cancer Society has played a large role in Ford's battle as well. Hamrick has been involved with Relay for Life for years, and the duo walked in the event's Survivor Lap for the first time in May. Admittedly, neither had ever thought to ask ACS for help -- even as survivors, they fell into the trap that many do, assuming the organization is solely about fundraising for research.

Through its Road to Recovery program, ACS has helped get Ford a wig and prosthesis, provided support groups and given her "a voice."

"Don't be afraid to open your mouth and ask questions," Ford said. "Just because you're uninsured doesn't mean that you can't be taken care of. Don't be afraid of your diagnosis."

"It's fightable. We don't have to die because we have breast cancer."

Mother and daughter got a piece of good news on Wednesday, Ford's 42nd birthday -- for the first time, doctors told them there had been a "slight improvement" in the size of the tumors, that it was "a little bit better" in her bones.

Treatment will be played by ear, a prognosis is far from concrete. If not curable, it's treatable.

"I believe that I'm going to be OK," Ford said. "I may have to deal with this on and off like her for my whole life, but I'm going to be OK."

Ford and Hamrick recently wrote their story down, a four-page manifesto meant to help them share their battle with the public. It turned out to be a more personal message; a formally expressed thank you from a daughter turned caregiver turned care recipient, a love letter from a mother to a fellow soldier in the war against cancer.

Gina, I am so proud to be your Mama, and so very delighted to be beside you sharing our story. I pray that you and I can be an inspiration, not just for each other, but for other women.