From Patient to Philanthropist: How One Cancer Patient Gives Back to 'A Place that Gave Us Hope'

Oct. 26, 2023
Gwyn Hankinson
Gwyn Hankinson

Twenty-one years ago, Gwyn and Garth Hankinson got the news they’d been hoping to hear: they were going to have a baby. They were thrilled — not knowing that soon their lives would turn upside down.

At Gwyn’s first prenatal visit, her obstetrician found a small lump in her breast. No one was too worried, but to be sure, the doctor ordered a biopsy. 

“I’ll never forget the phone call that came a few days later,” says Gwyn. “The biopsy showed ‘abnormal results.’ I was in shock.” Further testing confirmed that Gwyn had invasive breast cancer and needed immediate treatment. She was just 33 years old and two months pregnant.

Gwyn and Garth quickly started researching options, knowing that her pregnancy would make things more complicated. Gwyn called everyone she knew who had any experience with cancer, including her mother in North Carolina who was just completing her own breast cancer treatment.

Within a few days, the couple had an appointment at the Wilmot Cancer Institute Comprehensive Breast Center. Gwyn learned that she could get treated while pregnant and that she and the baby would likely have a positive outcome. The couple was impressed by Wilmot’s research-based approach to breast cancer. They also liked that Gwyn could receive all of her care close to home at the University of Rochester Medical Center, including high-risk OB/GYN support.

“It was a stressful time,” says Gwyn. “But we got through it thanks to Wilmot and many very helpful people.”

Gwyn's cancer treatment took place in 2002. During that time, one more unexpected event occurred when Gwyn went into early labor and her baby boy, Owen, was born seven weeks early.

Today, Owen is a healthy, 21-year-old business major at SUNY Geneseo, and the couple’s other son, Henok, is a high school junior with hopes of playing college hockey.

“Wilmot means so much to us,” Gwyn says. “In a sense, they gave us our son. It was a place that gave us hope.”

“I owe my family and the life we have today to Wilmot,” adds Garth. “This is why we have supported and been involved with the institute for so long.”


As a young couple in 2003, the Hankinsons wrote their first check to Wilmot for $100. That support and their gratitude has blossomed over the years, financially and in other ways.

When Owen was a baby, for example, family members held a fundraising dinner that resulted in $3,000 for breast cancer research at Wilmot. The couple’s own annual donations have remained consistent since those early days. 

In 2021, Garth joined Wilmot's advisory board. By then, he had become chief financial officer at Constellation Brands, and was happy to contribute ideas and knowledge drawn from his professional career. The couple also attends and supports Wilmot’s Discovery Ball, the cancer center’s largest annual fundraiser.

And, for the past seven years — even through the COVID-19 pandemic — Gwyn has volunteered at the information desk at Wilmot’s primary location on the URMC campus. She greets patients, answers questions, and offers a friendly face.

“I love coming here,” she says. “It’s just a privilege to be in an emotional space with someone who’s going through cancer.”

In 2022, the couple made a major philanthropic commitment to Wilmot to recognize the institute’s vital role in changing the course of breast cancer research and care, and the impact WCI has had on their own family. The couple’s $250,000 gift supports Wilmot’s Discovery Fund, which helps advance research, provide world-class oncology care, expand clinical trials for patients, and train future clinicians and scientists.

“If anyone asks us for cancer guidance we tell them to do their research and make decisions based on what’s right for them — cancer is so personal,” Gwyn advises. “We also tell them about our experiences at Wilmot and the important work being done there. We’re proud to be associated with such a vital resource in our community.”

“Everyone at Wilmot was there for us 20 years ago — from the oncologists to the nurses to the office staff,” adds Garth. “We are now in a fortunate position to give back to the institute, to show our gratitude, and to do our part to help others have access to the exceptional, empathetic care and support we received.”


GET INVOLVED Contact Clare Flanagan, Executive Director of Advancement for Wilmot Cancer Institute, at clare.flanagan@rochester.edu to learn more about how to make a difference.