By Mary Erskine
Chris Hall, 22, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, has taken a low point in his life and turned it into something positive, all in memory of his mother, Lynn, who died of triple negative breast cancer in 2018 at age 47. With a head for business and a drive to help others, Hall is working with the North Carolina Basnight Cancer Hospital to help fund a Parenting with Cancer Clinic through the hospital’s Comprehensive Cancer Support Program, CCSP.
The CCSP provides support to patients and their families, from diagnosis to treatment and into survivorship, and its goal is to help families just like Hall’s.
Hall, a business major who graduates this spring, already has put his business savvy to work, amassing more than $1.5 million in sales from his online enterprises, monetizing advertising on his social media channels and selling those for a profit, all to keep a promise he made to his mother when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“She was declared in remission when I was in eighth grade, and it sparked a little fire,” he said. “It made me think a little bit. I promised myself that I’d pay off her mortgage before I’m 25.”
But his mom’s cancer returned when Hall was a senior in high school. “She sits me down and says ‘it’s come back,’ and we both knew if it came back that that was the end. She had three to six months to live, and the promise I made, that got taken away from me,” he said.
Hall said his mom came from modest means, and her goal in life was to be a lawyer and help other single moms and their children navigate legal issues like custody agreements, divorce proceedings and other complex issues that require legal professionals. But her cancer took a toll, and she wasn’t able to accomplish her dream, sidelined by treatment side effects, time spent getting care and taking care of her son.
At the time, Hall’s online businesses were just getting started, and while he said he raised some funds, it wasn’t nearly enough.
“I couldn’t accomplish the original goal, but I really wanted to keep going and find a way to re-purpose that goal. I gave the gift in a way to honor her,” he said. “This is repurposing what I wanted to do and helping other people in our situation.”
The Lynn Hall Parenting with Cancer Clinic Fund will support the new clinic, co-led by UNC Lineberger’s Justin Yopp, PhD, and Cindy Rogers, JD, with support from CCSP Director Donald Rosenstein, MD, and Lauren Lux, MSW, LCSW, director of the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Cancer Program. The clinic’s mission is twofold – to help cancer patients with minor children talk to their children openly and honestly about their cancer and to help with legal issues that can ac-company cancer, such as end-of-life decisions, wills, trusts and custody agreements.
“We’ve seen more than a few parents have to make hurried decisions for children at the last minute, and that’s not the ideal time. Or they don’t get done at all,” Yopp, a clinical psychologist, said. “By meeting parents where they are and helping them plan these discussions, our hope is to tackle and address them early on so they won’t have to think about it.”
Yopp will lead the clinic with Rogers, who has a legal background, and can better guide patients and families who have questions to the right resources to address their concerns. Rogers said patients often need help with legal and health care powers of attorney documents, advance directives and wills, and single parents often need help with custody arrangements in case something happens to them. While the cancer hospital has these resources available, there is often more than just a connection that needs to happen.
“What’s missing is a referral portal for helping our families find competent legal representation for issues of estate planning and guardianship of minor children. This is where we are partnering with the legal community to identify legal resources across the state that can serve as a referral source,“ Rogers said. For patients with financial means to retain a private attorney, we’ll help them begin the process of thinking about their goals and encouraging them to begin the process of getting help documenting their wishes. For our families with a financial barrier to finding and retaining legal services, we are working with the North Carolina legal community to offer low and pro bono estate planning services.”
Rogers said they hope parents will embrace the clinic’s resources and not be afraid of having discussions of this type with their children and families.
“By engaging early with counseling and legal services geared specifically for parents with cancer, we hope to support patients while having difficult conversations with their children, partners and other family members, and we hope to help them plan for their future,” Rogers said. “We hope to normalize end-of-life discussions. Putting your affairs in order does not mean giving up hope. It’s a gift to your family to have a plan. Rather than worrying about what might happen, patients can have peace of mind that their families will be taken care of.”
Yopp said the clinic will also feature a research component as he and Rogers learn more about what parents need while going through cancer and can identify areas that need further study.
“Our primary mission is to provide these services for these families, but we imagine we’ll learn a lot and want to do it in a systematic way and figure out what’s most helpful for these families and, disseminate what we do to other cancer centers,” he said.
The cancer hospital is already a national leader with its CCSP program, and Yopp said he isn’t aware of other programs that include both parenting and legal services.
“This isn’t happening at a lot of cancer centers,” Yopp said. “There aren’t programs that integrate a legal component like ours, especially being free of charge to families, so this does feel in some ways like we’re trailblazers.
“We’re hoping the Parenting with Cancer Clinic will increase referrals from providers for a parent or guardian who may have a minor child, and we’re looking to help.”
The clinic is slated to open this spring and will be available to patients on Wednesday afternoons, with a dedicated space at the Mary Anne Long Patient and Family Resource Center and through telehealth for those who can’t travel to Chapel Hill.
Hall said his mom would be pleased with the clinic’s mission, and she would be proud of what her son has helped build to honor her legacy.
“I think she would say she told me so,” Hall said. “She said ‘you can do whatever you put your mind to, always leave something better than you found it.’ She’d say ‘I knew you could do it,’ and ‘I’m proud of you.’”