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Monday, 19 November 2018
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Christine Vatuone (center left) battles metastatic breast cancer while serving women and the unborn as executive director for Informed Choices in Gilroy, California. Christine Vatuone (center left) battles metastatic breast cancer while serving women and the unborn as executive director for Informed Choices in Gilroy, California. Photo: Christina Whittaker

How One Woman’s Fight with Breast Cancer Is Giving New Meaning to Her Pro-life Work

“Imagine Life.”

That was the name Christine Vatuone chose for a fundraising campaign to drum up donations for her pregnancy help center’s new ultrasound machine last year.

It’s a phrase that has come back to her repeatedly over the last several months, not only as she leads her center in the monumental task of saving unborn babies from abortion, but also as she fights a battle of her own with metastatic breast cancer.

The One Conversation You Never Want to Have

The diagnosis came just two years into Vatuone’s role as executive director at Informed Choices in Gilroy, California, a community in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was actually in the process of rebuilding the pregnancy center from the ground up, waiting on the California Department of Public Health to approve the center’s medical license when she was told she had stage 2 breast cancer.

Two months later, after enduring a double mastectomy, Vatuone learned her diagnosis had changed—but not for the better. She had rapidly moved from stage 2 to stage 3, and then—to Vatuone’s immense dismay—to stage 4.

In stage 4–otherwise known as metastatic breast cancer—cancerous cells have spread beyond the breast and nearby lymph nodes to other parts of the body. In Vatuone’s case, the cancer had metastasized to her bones.

According to the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network, “There are many people who undergo treatment and never have to deal with cancer again. A metastatic breast cancer diagnosis is different because it means you will actively deal with breast cancer for the rest of your life.”

With that knowledge in mind, the stage 4 diagnosis hit Vatuone hard.

"That was pretty awful. The one conversation you never want to have,” she said. “I think it's a fear that a lot of people have, that they'll end up with that. That's, in people's mind, the worst thing, and it kind of was in mine to tell you the truth. It was pretty bad.”

“I shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord.”

But her faith gave her strength to cope with the diagnosis, as she leaned on the Bible verse God had given her in her time of need: “I shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord.” (Psalm 118:17)

Tweet This: “I shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord.” #TeamChristine

“It was a very, very scary time, but God has been so good to me, I feel like He really gave me a peace about my life,” she said. “God speaks to everyone in these situations in different ways and I don't presume to have the answers, but for me, it was just the understanding...really, the heart knowledge that my days are numbered by the Lord, and He knows exactly how many days I have on this earth and I gave Him my life long ago, I'm not going to take it back now.”

As Vatuone waged battle against the advancing cancer, enduring several rounds of chemotherapy, she felt the Psalm God had given her take on a new meaning.

She saw its depth of purpose in her work at Informed Choices, but soon saw its meaning expand as a California law targeting pregnancy centers took center stage at the Supreme Court of the United States.

As a member of the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), Informed Choices was to be represented in the major lawsuit challenging the 2015 state law which forced pro-life medical clinics to promote abortion by posting abortion advertisements on their websites and waiting room walls.

Alliance Defending Freedom, NIFLA’s legal representation in the case, connected with Bay Area pregnancy centers, in the hopes of finding spokespeople who could educate the media, the public, and decision makers on their life-saving work, as well as the state law’s negative impact.

And that’s when they met Vatuone.

Suddenly, she was thrown into a media world she knew very little about. Interviewing with the Associated Press, The Washington Post, NPR, and then Vice News, Vatuone quickly gained exposure to a wide range of media outlets.

“It was really exciting, but also really exhausting, let me tell you,” she said.

Vatuone’s calling to answer her God-given Psalm didn’t stop there. In early 2017, she flew to D.C. twice: once to answer questions on a panel for Congressional staff, and again to give a speech on the Supreme Court steps the day NIFLA’s case was heard. That speech happened to fall on the same day as her and her husband’s 25th wedding anniversary. And D.C. happened to be the place the couple visited for their honeymoon all those years ago.

 

(Left) Christine in one of her center's consultation rooms. (Right) Christine and her husband Mark with their three children: Anna (24), Daniel (22), and Michael (19) | Photos: Christina Whittaker


“It was really interesting to me that that was the verse God gave me and then suddenly I had all these opportunities to do just that,” she said.

When the Court finally passed down the decision this June, striking down the law in a 5-4 ruling, Vatuone and her colleagues were overjoyed, not only for their own First Amendment rights but for the women they serve.

Tweet This: This #prolife woman played a major role in SCOTUS case while fighting her own battle with stage 4 breast cancer. #TeamChristine

“I do feel like our clients are better off because I have never met a woman who didn't know if she had a legal right to an abortion or, in all honesty, where to get that abortion,” she said. “If there's a Planned Parenthood in your community, they know where to go to get an abortion. What they most often don't know is what their other options are. Or they haven't really realized that those are real options for them.”

 

Christine shared the work of her center with lawmakers in Washington D.C. earlier this year. (Left) Christine outside the Capitol; (right) Christine with Anne J. O’Connor, NIFLA Vice President of Legal Affairs | Photos Courtesy: Christine Vatuone


Real options like parenting and adoption are two alternatives women and men can find at Informed Choices.

But that might not be the case today had Vatuone not stepped into the role of executive director just a few years ago, pulling the center back from the brink of closure.

Greater Things

In 2013, the year before Vatuone took the reins, Informed Choices had seen only seen five clients. Unsuccessful experimentation with a mobile unit, as well as a location and name change, had made it difficult for clients to find the center and had left donors disheartened. The center’s prospects had become so dim that Vatuone’s church—which had supported the center since it opened in 1989—finally considered withdrawing its longtime support.

When it came to a vote, Vatuone, who also worked at the church, was one of the members who voted in favor of withdrawal—a vote she jokes about now, noting how grateful she has been for the church’s help in rebuilding.

Then, in May 2014, when the center’s director retired, Vatuone, who had previously worked at a pregnancy center a town over, was asked to fill the vacancy. Although she initially declined, she eventually decided to jump on board.

“I honestly did not know if I would be helping the center to close its doors gracefully or go on to greater things,” she said.

As it turned out, greater things were in order.

 

(Left) Christine and her team celebrate being licensed as a medical clinic by the state of California. (Right) Now, Vatuone's team can help women "imagine life" through limited obstetric ultrasound. | Photos: Christina Whittaker


Armed with a $10,000 gift from her church, Vatuone hit the ground running, moving the center from its former location in Morgan Hill to Gilroy—the home of a major regional Planned Parenthood. The next major task would involve navigating the state of California’s rigorous application for becoming a medical clinic.

Today, thanks to Vatuone’s perseverance through that process, Informed Choices offers free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds read by a medical professional. The center now sees about 50 clients per month—a far cry from the five clients the center served in 2013.

With medical services well under way, the next goal on Vatuone’s list is to get their mobile unit licensed and on the road, a task she’s powering away at, even while working from home on reduced hours.

The Realities of Your Mortality

Over the last two years, Vatuone’s cancer has responded strongly to treatment, finally giving her the coveted “No Evidence of Disease” (N.E.D.) result at a scan at the end of August.

“I am thrilled to say it was clear!” she wrote in an email. “Reading the words, ‘No Metastasis,’ is a wonderful thing!”

Although N.E.D. does not mean the cancer is cured, the result is undoubtedly a positive one. While the cancer will persist as a chronic disease that requires constant treatment, Vatuone’s day-to-day remains threaded with challenges. 

“It's filled with doctors appointments and treatments and side effects and all sorts of yucky stuff,” she said. “But at the same time, it's also been filled with an outpouring of prayer and support, and I don't feel like I'm on this journey alone. I have so many people that have surrounded me and that's a blessing. I've reconnected with old friends and people from my past through this cancer and there have been many blessings along the way.”

Along with her family, the Informed Choices team has offered Vatuone some of her strongest allies during her illness, even as her board considers a succession plan for her role.

“I have a really truly amazing staff,” she said. “I know probably everybody says that, but I can say mine are truly amazing. They make this really possible. Without that, it would be tough.”

And of course, there’s the One who gave her the Psalm to follow all those months ago.

“It's a matter of following Him day by day, just the same way I did before I had this diagnosis and that hasn't changed,” she said.

Neither has the vision that beset her mind a year ago for her center’s ultrasound machine.

“It actually makes me a little teary because encouraging others to ‘imagine life’ when you are at the same time facing the realities of your mortality, the realities of a possible death of your own life is… It's a very tender thing and I just think it's an honor every day, no matter your life circumstances, to help women imagine life,” Vatuone said.

Tweet This: "Encouraging others to ‘imagine life’ when you are...facing the realities of your mortality... It's a very tender thing." #TeamChristine

“For me, I think it's just an extra special honor to be able to do that when I'm battling metastatic breast cancer. Life is a lot harder than it used to be physically and emotionally, and every time I see a life spared from abortion I feel like it's just an honor to be able to spend my time and my days to continue in that work. My house may be more of a mess, but there are lives that are being changed and restored and saved through the work that we do and I just am happy that I get to play a part in it still.”

 

"My house may be more of a mess, but there are lives that are being changed and restored and saved through the work that we do and I just am happy that I get to play a part in it still.” | Photos: Christina Whittaker

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Katie Franklin

Katie Franklin is managing editor for Pregnancy Help News and content writer at Heartbeat International. She previously served as director of communications for Ohio Right to Life and is a graduate of Denison University where she earned a B.A. in history in 2013. Katie lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Miles and daughter Elizabeth.

 

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