Cancer tale inspiration for patient helpers

Families start nonprofit group to help with the little things

June 09, 2006|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

Lark Schulze, a Rodgers Forge attorney, has never met author Katherine Russell Rich. But she feels a kinship to the New York City writer.

Rich survived a brutal battle with breast cancer in her 30s, and told her tale in a 1999 book called The Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer - and Back. A year later, as Schulze's daughter was dying of the disease, Rich's book helped the Maryland lawyer understand what her child was going through.

During moments of quiet hope during her own recovery, Rich had looked forward to seeing age 50, falling in love again and someday starting a group to help cancer patients.

Little did Rich know that she was already inspiring Schulze, who launched a nonprofit group in 2003 to help breast cancer patients and their families perform the simple, daily tasks that drain what little energy they have left as they fight for their lives.

Schulze named the group the Red Devils.

"A friend of mine called me recently and told me about this group," says Rich, now 50 and working on a second book, about India. "And I was so thrilled that they were using the name of my book. I was flabbergasted. A lot of my book came from the writing I was doing in my journal.

"At the time, I felt so cut off. I was in this place that was so black and lonely. But years later, I find out that personality that was writing that book was speaking to Lark. In this weird time warp way, I had made a connection."

The two women will finally meet this weekend, when Rich comes to town to walk in the Red Devils' annual Heart and Sole Stroll, a 2.4-mile walk around Centennial Lake near Columbia on Sunday to raise money for the Red Devils.

The group provides house-cleaning services, catered meals, help with prescription drug costs, and transportation to and from chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer patients.

The concept grew out of experiences that Schulze's daughter, Jessica Cowling, and a friend, Ginny Schardt, had as they sought to live normal lives, even with breast cancer, Schulze says.

Cowling started and ran a cookie company after she was diagnosed at age 30, while Schardt continued teaching a sports psychology class at Towson University. Surrounded by family and friends, the two women also went to support classes and treatment, determined to beat the disease.

At the time, both families recognized a vital need in the cancer community.

"Ginny has an enormous family, and Jessica had a smaller family, but many friends," says Schulze, 63. "Somebody went with them to everything. I will never forget taking Jessica to chemotherapy, where I saw a young girl in her 30s who had an infant with her. She drove up from Virginia by herself with her baby. I realized that a lot of people going through this have nobody."

In 1988, Rich's marriage was already ending when she discovered the lump in her breast. After a debilitating round of chemotherapy that rid her of the cancer, Rich wrote in her book: "Emotional exhaustion put me into a stupor. I was apathetic, dimmed. Now that I'd learned to cry, I couldn't stop. ... I was on the edge of nothing. I didn't like to leave the apartment. I was scared of people, scared to have them look at me."

Looking back, Rich says she never felt more alone, despite the support of her ex-husband, family and friends. In bad times, she believed she would die within a year.

"I was just so distraught and so lonely going through this," Rich says. "I got it at 32. Three years later, it spread through all my bones and it became stage four cancer. There is a deep loneliness that you reach when you're going through cancer. You don't know how to bring people in, and they don't know how to come in. I wrote it [the book] just to keep a dialogue with someone, even if it was just with me."

The wry, touching accounts of her pain and isolation through treatment and a bone marrow transplant would touch Schulze years later.

Desperate to comprehend what was going on in her daughter's mind, Schulze devoured whatever reading material she could find on the subject. The Red Devil, a nickname for a drug often used to treat breast cancer, was a rare view from someone who, at the time, was close to Cowling's age.

"I knew my daughter's odds were slim," Schulze says. "About 95 percent of patients who were diagnosed with advanced breast cancer died within two years. but 5 percent survived. I thought, `What if she was in the 5 percent?'"

Of Rich's book, she says, "It gave me hope. It was all about how you just keep going, how you will get through this. The book meant so much to me."

Cowling died in the summer of 2002. Six weeks later, in August, her friend Ginny died at age 44.

Determined to transform their grief into a higher good, Schulze and the Schardt family launched their group, which would go on to help women such as Terry Paul, a mother of three from Ellicott City.

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