All For One

Young survivors band together to teach and support others who run the risk of breast cancer.

October 02, 2003|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

First, you'll want to know Deb Mendelson, because she's the one who pulled everybody together. The ring leader of a new group that's fielding a team in Saturday's Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

A single mother of two small boys, she has a lilting Southern accent - she's from central Virginia - and nonstop energy. Her latest news: She's engaged to be married. Nearly from the day she was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago at age 32, she's been out searching for other young women in her situation.

Next there's Jeannine Abbinanti, 31; she moved to Baltimore for a job with Southwest Airlines a week after her last cancer treatment in 1999. She's moved ahead, though cancer remains a part of who she is. She was trying to figure out how to tell the nice guy she's dating that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer when he told her she'd given it away already: pictures of herself with no hair in her Pasadena apartment and a cat named Chemo.

There are five women altogether. All talkers. All doers. Two were new to Baltimore when they were diagnosed with breast cancer but had made friends enough already to help them during treatment. They were destined to find each other - seeking, as they were, others who understood something about living with breast cancer at ages so young some had yet to consider starting a family when they faced the possibility they might not be able to.

They are the brains behind a new group to make it easier for young women down the line.

Tonight they and other under-40 survivors will rally at Charm City Runners in Timonium, the team's sponsor, to pick up team packets and peruse new gear for the cause.

In a way, Saturday is payback time. The annual race, a tribute to breast cancer survivors, raises money to help more women in Maryland be tested for breast cancer, to educate them, to pay for mammograms for those without insurance and to alert women to medical research projects that could benefit them. Some of the money (25 percent) goes outside the state for national research efforts, and last year, some of the money paid for these five women to attend the third annual convention in Philadelphia of the Young Survival Coalition, a fledgling national group aimed at helping young women. So far, 85 women have joined the Maryland affiliate, which is being organized as a nonprofit. Their team Saturday has 73 people.

Of the 200,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer annually, only 11,000 are under 40. What Deb Mendelson discovered was that the issues she faced - fertility, early menopause and caring for small children - were different from those faced by older women. It was after a yoga class at a wellness center one day that she decided to do something. She was the youngest one by far in the class and felt so out of place she never went back. A nurse at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Barbara Raksin, who is also a member of the Komen board of directors, told her about the Young Survival Coalition and went with her to its second national convention.

It took Mendelson one year to find four other people who wanted to organize a Maryland group and, like her, each woman was already trying to spread the word.

All but one had been twentysomething or thirtysomething when she felt a lump in her breast and went to the doctor. Pat Fisher, 57, is the exception in the group. She and her husband, Ronald Fisher Sr, raise money for an annual scholarship in honor of their daughter, Allison E. Fisher, a television broadcaster who died from breast cancer five years ago at 28.

"I'm the mother hen," she says.

Fisher says her daughter, a Perry Hall High School honors graduate who earned a broadcast degree from American University, insisted on staying in California throughout her illness. The guy Allison was dating left her when he learned she had breast cancer - not an issue for her mother when she got the disease herself 12 years ago. Though Allison Fisher had friends and even surrogate parents, thanks to connections her mother made by volunteering at the Baltimore County Public Library, the young woman complained to her parents that she had no one her age to speak with. That led the Fishers to start the scholarship to bring awareness of the disease to young people. Pat Fisher was looking for links to the Web site on her daughter when she discovered the Young Survival Coalition and Deb Mendelson. "It was a perfect fit for us," Fisher says.

"We want healthy women to be aware of the risk," she says, "and also we want young women to be more active - when they find a lump, don't let doctors dismiss it."

Getting the word out

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