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Cathy Stiller

Selflessness in the Face of Hardship

Holy Name Patient Stories - Cathy Stiller

Cathy Stiller only stayed at Villa Marie Claire for four days, but due to the sheer amount of quality time her family were able to spend with her there, they say it “felt like a month.” Having been in and out of the hospital receiving breast cancer treatments, the Villa was a welcome change for Cathy and her family and friends.

“The entire time she was there, all she said about the place was [that] everyone was so comforting, everyone was so kind to her, and she felt very much at peace,” Cathy's mom, Kathy said.

Cathy’s story is one of a selfless woman who, as her father Harold said, “couldn’t do enough for you.” She loved to stay active and fit, and she ran her first half marathon to raise money for the father of a friend who had leukemia. Cathy went on to run the New York City Marathon, a testament to her drive and energy after chemotherapy.

When Cathy was 28, just six weeks before her wedding on June 5, 2010, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She and her husband altered their honeymoon plans so she could receive treatment, which included a double mastectomy. The couple also decided to create and freeze embryos before Cathy started any procedures with the hope that they would be able to start the family they dreamed about.

Cathy went into remission after about a year of treatment. Five years later, she and her husband found a surrogate to carry two of their frozen embryos that had fused together at some point and couldn’t be separated: twins. Cathy flew to Iowa, where the surrogate was located, to be with her in the two months leading up to the birth. But right before that trip, she faced more difficult news. She went to see her doctor about pain she’d been having in her leg, only to learn that her cancer had metastasized.

The twins, a boy and a girl, were born on July 27, 2015. Cathy and her husband adored them. Her parents helped out with childcare and urged their daughter to stop working; they wanted her to have as much time with her children as she could. Cathy chose to keep working though – it helped her not to dwell on the difficult medical challenges she was facing.

After Christmas in 2017, Cathy was hospitalized for a number of emergency situations related to cancer and she continued to receive regular chemotherapy treatments. Prior to one of those appointments, she needed a transfusion and could not have chemotherapy as usual. From then, Cathy’s condition quickly worsened. Ultimately, Cathy’s medical team told her family that they could no longer treat her disease, but they could try to make her comfortable.

The hospital was a difficult environment for Cathy to be in, and not at all suitable for her children to come and visit her. Harold and Kathy are both former healthcare administrators, so they had a lot of knowledge to rely on when making their next decisions. They knew that Holy Name Medical Center has long been known for its spiritual sensitivity, and that really drew them to its residential hospice, Villa Marie Claire.

Finding a place where Cathy could comfortably spend time with her children was everyone’s number one priority. The twins, then around two and a half years old, had a ball playing with their mother, and the whole family was able to make happy, lasting memories. Always thinking of others, Cathy discussed plans for the children’s care with her husband and parents, and even asked a priest at the Villa to come and speak with her and her parents.

“It was overwhelming to me how she handled this with such dignity,” Kathy said. “I was humbled by everything she had done to make sure everybody would be prepared for our life without her here.”

Cathy passed away on February 12, 2018. Each family member chose to work through their grief in their own ways. Kathy sought grief counseling through the Villa, and for a year and a half both private and group sessions helped her process her feelings and cope with the responsibility of helping to care for her young grandchildren.

“You expect to lose your parents,” Kathy said, “but you don’t ever expect to lose a child.”

It was with this unique and difficult situation in mind that Kathy and Harold worked with Villa Marie Claire to develop the Bereavement Program for the Parents of Adult Children. They were inspired by their daughter’s concern for everyone except herself, and her desire that they find some kind of peace without her. There is also a new playroom in the Villa, named for Cathy, so that visiting children, like the twins, can have a place to play.

To schedule a tour or for more information, please visit https://villamarieclaire.org or call 551-248-4800 or email vmcinfo@holyname.org.