Joan Raffensberger, 63, counseled cancer patients

August 21, 2002|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Joan M. Raffensberger, whose decadelong struggle against breast cancer and later uterine cancer served as an inspiration to those similarly afflicted, died of the disease Monday at her home in Frederick. She was 63.

Born Joan M. Landsman in Baltimore, into a well-known family of Maryland firefighters and police officers, she was raised on Royce Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. She attended Seton High School until transferring to Forest Park High School, from which she graduated in 1958.

"I first saw her on a Tuesday night in October of 1953," said her husband of 44 years, Regis R. Raffensberger, a former Baltimore police major and retired Frederick city police chief. "It was in the Northwest Market in the 4500 block of Reisterstown Road.

"Here was this girl with a ponytail wearing a sleeveless pink top, blue pedal pushers, thick white socks and white tennis shoes. She had one hand on her hip and the other on the counter. I was smitten and said, `This one is mine, guys.'"

The couple married after graduating from high school, and Mrs. Raffensberger, who was used to the vagaries that police work can exact on family life, set about raising her three children.

"She was one of those unique women who was accustomed to shift work and my not being available for birthdays and other holidays," said Mr. Raffensberger, who was police chief in Frederick from 1992 until retiring this year. "She forged ahead, raising our family and supporting me."

Mrs. Raffensberger's seemingly idyllic life came crashing down when she received a diagnosis of breast cancer in 1991. She was 57.

A lumpectomy and 6 1/2 weeks of radiation followed. A blood test revealed that all traces of the cancer had disappeared.

Three years later, the cancer returned, this time requiring a mastectomy and two months of intensive chemotherapy. Again, follow-up blood tests showed she was cancer-free.

"The second time around wasn't so bad," she told The Frederick News-Post in a 1996 interview. "It's hard to explain why it didn't seem so bad, but I guess it was because I'd been through it before. I knew I was going to be all right. It's all about acceptance. Once I'd accepted the diagnosis the second time I just thought to myself: `OK, I've done this before. I can do it again. Now let's get on with the treatments so I can get on with living.'"

After reconstructive surgery, Mrs. Raffensberger decided to share her survival experience with those diagnosed with cancer, as well as underscoring the importance of mammograms and monthly self-examination.

She and her husband were co-founders of the Relay for Life in Frederick County, and organized the first three relays, which raised more than $250,000 for cancer research.

"We became friends after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996," said Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, a Frederick County Republican. "And because we both shared cancer, we had a special bond. When we saw each other, we'd ask, `How's your cancer doing?' And we'd both answer, `Fine.'

"She was such an inspiration and a super lady. She was the kind of person who always thinks of everyone else first. She was open and never held her punches. If you asked, she'd tell you."

Mr. Raffensberger added: "Through all of Joan's ordeals, her doctors recognized her inner strength, and when they had new patients diagnosed with the disease, they sent them to see her."

Black or white, rich or poor, they trooped up the steps of her Frederick home to listen to someone who could help them confront their worst fears and doubts.

"Scores came to our home," her husband said. "She'd talk for hours helping them confront the horrors of the disease. And when they left, they were better prepared to face their ordeal. Because Joan was such a fighter, she wanted to ease their fears."

Rita M. Gordon, a retired registered nurse and friend for 10 years, recalled Mrs. Raffensberger's concern when Mrs. Gordon broke an ankle.

"There was just no one like her," Mrs. Gordon said. "Here she was dealing with this horrible disease calling and consoling me. She was just an incredible human being. Everyone should have a friend like Joan. She had an incredible way of dealing with cancer, and it was all in her attitude. We all thought she beat it. I guess we now have a new angel in heaven."

"Everyone was blessed because of her," Mr. Raffensberger said. "Even though she had gone through her own horrors, she never, never once said, `Why me, Lord?' She never complained. And her big concern was that she didn't want people crying. She wanted her friends and family to remember all the good times and to `celebrate my life.'"

A devout Roman Catholic, Mrs. Raffensberger had been a communicant of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Glyndon when she lived in Owings Mills.

At her death, she was a member of St. John the Evangelist in Frederick.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Loring Byers funeral home, 8728 Liberty Road, Randallstown.

Mrs. Raffensberger also is survived by two sons, Kenneth R. Raffensberger of Lancaster, Pa., and Keith E. Raffensberger of Ocean City; a daughter, Kathleen D. Davis of Lutherville; seven brothers, Jerry Landsman of Hampstead, Jack Landsman of Hanover, Pa., Jim Landsman of Catonsville, Jay Landsman of Woodbine, Jeff Landsman of Westminster, Joel Landsman of Baltimore and Jan Landsman of Reisterstown; a sister, Janice Huff of Catonsville; and six grandchildren.

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