Local man challenges cancer through fund for young adults


June 14, 1999|By Sally Voris | Sally Voris,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

DOUG ULMAN always knew he wanted to teach. He planned to teach history, but a twist of fate has channeled his strong spirit into deeper waters.

Now he teaches about cancer.

The Ellicott City resident graduated from Centennial High School in 1995. He was a dynamo: soccer team captain, Howard County Student Government Association president, student representative to the school board.

Ulman was home for the summer after finishing his freshman year at Brown University when his life changed.

Then 19, he was jogging on a hot August night with his older brother, Ken Ulman, when he felt a constriction in his chest.

He thought it was asthma and went to the Howard County General Hospital emergency room. A week later, doctors found a suspicious tumor on his spine.

Such a tumor is benign 98 percent of the time, they told him, but the growth on Ulman's spine was a malignant chondrosarcoma. He had surgery quickly, during which doctors removed the tumor and part of a rib.

Ulman insisted on starting his sophomore year on time. While his soccer team played, he rode an exercise bike on the sidelines until his doctor gave him permission to play again. He played that fall for 20 minutes and came out of the game exhausted, his mother said.

In October 1996, Ulman watched a television special about journalist Sam Donaldson describing his experience with cancer. His parents, Louis and Diana Ulman, watched the show from their home in Dorsey Hall.

The next morning, Ulman called his mother and asked her to help him with a project. She agreed and then learned he wanted to create a nonprofit organization to fight cancer.

An interior designer, Diana Ulman knew nothing about starting such an organization. But she and her son created the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.

Diana Ulman said they decided to focus on young adults because when her family sought support for Doug, they found nothing for his age group.

Young adults stricken with cancer face special issues, she said.

Diana Ulman described how her son, at age 19, was asked to sign release forms for his surgery in which death was listed as a possible outcome -- a jarring prospect, at best.

Young adults may need help advocating for the medical services they need, or asking for special consideration from employers and colleges. Parents may need to press college administrators to provide a good environment and healthy food, she said.

There are also practical questions about insurance, fertility and dating. For example, young men may want to consider donating to a sperm bank before starting aggressive treatments.

She said that those just starting their lives are "feeling optimistic and invincible" and cancer is not the normal course of life for them. Struggling to establish independent lives, they may clash with anguished parents who want to make decisions about their treatment. Medical providers may speak only to the parent, or only to the young adult. Grown children need to make their own decisions, Diana Ulman said.

Some young adults may be raising families, living far from their relatives, or studying and wanting to continue school, as Doug Ulman did.

Diana Ulman accompanied her son to college at the start of his sophomore year.

In March 1997, the Ulmans got more bad news. Doug Ulman had a mole that was cancerous -- a melanoma.

Diana Ulman called the soccer coach at Brown and told him that her son would be getting bad news. The coach went early to the locker room to be there for him.

His mother said she couldn't have coped with her son being so far away if she had not known that there was a caring adult with him.

Another melanoma was found in June. Both lesions were treated.

Doug Ulman believes that the fund's most important work is to bring together people of the same age group who have similar problems.

It took him nine months to find a man who had the same kind of cancer he did, he said. They met and played golf together. It was amazing how much they had in common, he said.

Doug Ulman organized a fund-raiser, an exhibition game, for the Ulman Cancer Fund in August 1997 in Columbia, for which he says he recruited some of the country's best college soccer players.

More than 1,900 people watched. At the end of the game, the players took off their shirts, autographed them and gave them to young fans.

Nick Scott, now a fifth-grader at Ilchester Elementary, got Doug Ulman's shirt.

This spring, Nick and fellow pupil Ryan Hossick invited Doug Ulman to their school to talk about the dangers of skin cancer. He spoke briefly, but the fifth-graders asked question after question. They were so excited, Ulman said, he could have answered questions for four hours.

"Most young people don't think about death and dying," he said. To see someone five to 10 years older than themselves who looks healthy but has had to face death was fascinating for the children.

"It's amazing to see their reactions," he said.

He asked the children to send him additional questions. They have, and he has responded.

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