A Race TO REMEMBER Not every soon-to-be-12-year-old would choose to have her birthday party at the Race for the Cure. But Ellie Stewart has a couple of very good reasons for doing just that.

October 02, 1997|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Two years ago, Ellie Stewart accompanied her beloved "Aunt" Jean Gano in the Race for the Cure. While Ellie helped manage 4-year-old Claire Gano, her mom and Aunt Jean cracked jokes, compared kids and talked about the future. They all breathed in the promise of a crisp fall morning.

It was a wonderful day for Jean Gano, a month before her 40th birthday. Wearing her pink breast cancer survivor's cap, she looked strong, vibrant and triumphant for the official group photograph. The mother of three had made a great comeback from her disease with the help of a bone marrow transplant. It was a time of celebration.

Ellie Stewart is now in seventh grade. Lean, strong and glowing, she is life in its potential and abundance. And this year, when she walks in the race, she will wear two pink signs on her back: "One for Aunt Jean, and one for Mom's mom," she explains.

Polly Page died of breast cancer when her granddaughter was 2 years old. Ellie's other grandmother, Ann Stewart, had died of the disease before Ellie was born.

Jean Gano died this year, the day after Mother's Day.

On Saturday, Ellie will pay tribute to her memory when she and six of her friends run together in this year's Race for the Cure.

Ellie turns 12 the next day. She recently asked her mother if she could have a different kind of birthday party, one where she could invite friends from Garrison Forest School to join her in the race.

So Kate Cunningham, Kait Gentry, Charlotte Gormley, Tory Choate, Caroline Enten and Bev Fountain will accompany Ellie, her parents and thousands of other Marylanders in an event which pledges something positive can grow from the painful awareness of this disease.

The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation's Race for the Cure, now in its fifth year in Maryland, raises money to advance research, education, screening and treatment of breast cancer. So far, it's raised more than $1.2 million.

And helped many along the road toward healing.

Mary Stewart's voice wavers as she talks about Jean, a woman to whom she could always turn for sound advice on kids, husbands, books, life, "you name it." She describes her friend as generous, thoughtful, quick-witted and "really, really, really smart." At Jean's memorial service, Mary also remembered her as a wonderful gift-giver. She told the friends and family in attendance Jean was going to be a great angel.

It was a friendship that went back more than 20 years. Bob and Mary Stewart and Jean and Rhett Gano were in each other's weddings, vacationed together every year and served as godparents to each other's children. Although the Ganos lived in New Jersey, Jean chose to have cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital and stayed at the Stewarts' house in Ruxton. ** When she had her bone marrow transplant, Jean and Rhett moved into Ellie's bedroom for a month and a half.

Ellie didn't mind. Before Jean's daughter Claire was born, Ellie owned the title of the little girl in Aunt Jean's life. Aunt Jean gave her the big soft rabbit on her bed, the sweaters, the teddy bear-making kit. It was always a pleasure to have such a fun and doting grown-up around.

"When Aunt Jean was here, her cancer was -- not a non-issue -- but she never brought too much attention to it," Ellie says. "I remember when the whole family would come down and all the kids would be in the TV room watching a movie, Aunt Jean and Mom would always be out in the kitchen, just talking as usual."

Jean was determined, above all, to remain a good mom, Mary says.

"Probably the hardest part of the disease for her was when she couldn't take the kids to school in the morning," Mary says. "Or she would, and then she would stay in bed all day until they got home. She would store up all her energy to help them do homework."

Mary Stewart's 1994 calendar still holds the skeleton of Jean's illness, jottings connected to dates that reconstruct the course of her disease:

Diagnosis of breast cancer in June. Chemotherapy in July. Lost hair in August. Came to Baltimore in November for the bone marrow transplant. Home to New Jersey for Christmas.

Followed by two good years.

"Then last December, Jean got a cold which she thought was a cold but it ended up that the cancer had metastasized to her lung. She started chemotherapy in March and lost all her hair again.

"Then in April -- we laughed about this -- they switched Jean to another drug because the first wasn't working. The second one didn't make her lose her hair. She was furious she'd lost her hair for nothing!

"The day she died -- I was in her hospital room when the troupe of doctors came in that morning -- she said, 'So what good news do you have for me today?' "

Mary Stewart chuckles at the memory.

"Jean kept her sense of humor through the whole process. It never felt awkward to be around her. It had such an impact on Ellie that Jean was able to always laugh -- and that she just wouldn't give up."

Ellie heard Aunt Jean crack jokes about going bald. She watched her shiver when everyone else in the room was warm.

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