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'Mary Poppins' for moms who have cancer

By Marissa Calhoun, CNN
March 27, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
  • Nanny Angel Network provides free in-home childcare for mothers with cancer
  • A breast cancer survivor, Guth met moms suffering from the disease while raising children
  • Guth's nonprofit provides them with "nanny angels" to help take care of the kids
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes

Toronto (CNN) -- It was confirmation of her worst fears: The lump Audrey Guth found on her breast turned out to be cancer.

"When you get the news that you have cancer, as a mom your life turns upside down," Guth said. "The first thing you think about (is) your children."

Fortunately for Guth, her adult children could support themselves while she underwent treatment. But she quickly learned that not all mothers were as lucky.

"I saw so many moms sitting there with their children on their laps, pulling their clothing," Guth said. "I thought, 'This is not a place for children.' "

The Nanny Angel Network has helped over 300 mothers in and around Toronto since 2008.
The Nanny Angel Network has helped over 300 mothers in and around Toronto since 2008.

With a background running a nanny agency, Guth knew she could help. In 2008, she started the Nanny Angel Network, a nonprofit that provides free in-home childcare for mothers who have cancer.

"Mothers who are diagnosed with cancer are caregivers who suddenly find themselves in need of care," said Guth, 59. "Our program allows mothers the freedom to take a rest, because that's what they need the most to get better."

Since 2008, her organization has helped more than 300 moms in and around Toronto.

'Nanny Angels' to the rescue

Guth's program is staffed by a team of volunteers who have professional backgrounds in childcare. Many of them are cancer survivors.

"Our program allows mothers the freedom to take a rest, because that's what they need the most to get better."
Audrey Guth

Nearly half of the moms they help are single parents. It's one of the many reasons she believes the organization is so important.

"When you're a single mom, your income is decreased, and you often can't afford childcare," Guth said.

It's a challenge Shauna Barnett knows all too well. A single mother to a 4-year-old son, Barnett has battled stage 2 breast cancer since September. She underwent a double mastectomy and aggressive chemotherapy to treat her disease.

"If I'm having a bad day, sometimes I can't lift my head off the pillow," said Barnett, 38. "As a mother, I feel so bad to have to say to my son, 'Please go play with your toys so mommy can rest.' He's only 4, he doesn't understand."

Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes

Once a week, Barnett and her son, Deshaun, get a visit from someone who does understand: Deshaun's "nanny angel," Ruth Van Es.

"We bake cookies and cakes. When it's warm, we walk to the park. (We) play board games, read books," said Van Es, a cancer survivor. "The main thing is to keep their minds off of the cancer and what is happening to mum. I feel like Mary Poppins."

Barnett recently underwent her last round of chemo and says doctors have given her a positive prognosis. She is grateful to Guth's program for making her cancer journey easier.

"The Nanny Angel Network is a Godsend," Barnett said. "When Ruth comes to my home, it's such a huge relief to have a chance to rest."

Cancer changes everything

Last year, Guth expanded her services to help families with end-of-life care.

"When there is a death, we stick around to be there for the kids," Guth said. "This is so essential for the child who just lost their mother and is trying to cope with that."

Ultimately, Guth hopes her efforts give families the peace of mind that their children will be cared for during a difficult time.

"Cancer changes everything for you and for your entire family," she said. "What we do won't take away their illness, but it will certainly make their journey a lot easier."

With her own cancer now in remission, Guth considers herself lucky, and she plans to keep paying her good fortune forward to more moms in need.

"When we get the call that says, 'I finished my chemo' or 'my nanny angel came today, and my child had the best time,' that's when we say, 'Yes, we're really making a difference.' "

Want to get involved? Check out the Nanny Angel Network website at and see how to help.

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