In adversity, opportunity

Cancer in her family inspires Diana Ulman to help educate others

March 16, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For too long, cancer has been an unsettling presence in the life of Diana Ulman, the mother of County Executive Ken Ulman.

When she was 18, her father, Kenneth Milford, died of leukemia at age 48. Diana's younger son, Doug Ulman, was diagnosed with chrondosarcoma in August of 1996, when he was 19. He was diagnosed twice with melanoma in 1997. He is now cancer-free.

Her husband, Louis, recently underwent successful treatment for prostate cancer.

And recently, Diana Ulman learned that she has breast cancer. After a routine mammogram, she said, "I got that letter that everyone hates to get, that something's not right. You need a follow-up."

Her cancer was caught early, and she expects a full recovery. She recently underwent a lumpectomy, and she is starting 33 sessions of radiation treatment.

Learning you have cancer is an intensely personal, emotional thing. But Diana Ulman, 58, is using the opportunity to educate others about the importance of regular cancer screenings.

"I'm basically a very private person," she said. "But I just feel like I need to tell people how important it is to get mammograms. We have these mechanisms for catching it early. I just want to get that information out."

Her sons are not surprised that she is using her experience as a teaching tool.

"That's kind of what my mom does," Ken Ulman said. "Her outlook on life is to look at every challenge as an opportunity. I think she ingrained those values in my brother and I."

Doug Ulman, calling from Austin, Texas, where he is president of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, agreed that Diana has always focused on "giving back and looking at ways to help others." He said learning that his mother had cancer was in some ways harder than having it himself.

"A lot of times it's easier to be the patient," he said. "For anybody, it's hard to see their parents deal with something. But luckily, my mom is the strongest person I've ever met."

Diana Ulman was born in Baltimore County and moved to Howard County in 1972. She is an interior decorator and artist, as well as a wife, mother and grandmother.

When Doug was 19, the summer after his freshman year at Brown University, he went for a run one evening with Ken.

After the brothers got back, Doug, who played soccer at Brown, could not catch his breath. About 90 minutes later, the family took him to the hospital.

"For some unexplained reason, the doctor ordered a chest X-ray," said Diana, talking in the living room of her Ellicott City home, where she was watching her granddaughter, Lily, as she does twice a week.

That X-ray was extremely fortunate, because it caught a tumor growing on one of Doug's ribs, protruding toward the lung. Such tumors are benign 99 percent of the time, Diana said, but "it turned out that his was the 1 percent that was malignant."

As Doug underwent treatment and gradually recovered, Diana tried to find him a support group. "Doug felt very alone as a young adult, a college student, with cancer," she said.

After he returned to Brown, he called his mother to say he wanted to start an organization for young cancer survivors. Together, they created the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults in 1997. The fund provides support and information for young adults with cancer.

The fund also raises money, often through events such as college soccer tournaments. As the organization gained publicity, Doug received an e-mail from Lance Armstrong, the famed bicyclist and another young cancer survivor.

"They had a lot in common," said Diana. "They were both athletes, they were both young." The two struck up an e-mail friendship, and five years ago Doug Ulman took a job with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which provides information, inspiration and support to people with cancer. In January, he was promoted to president.

The Ulman Cancer Fund is now run by Doug's friend, Brock Yetso, who played soccer at Centennial with Doug and whose mother died of colon cancer in 2000.

Diana Ulman remains active as chairman of the board. She said she does not expect changes to the fund based on her new experience with breast cancer. "There's a lot going on with breast cancer survivors already," she said.

Diana still works as an interior designer, she said, but she may have to scale back her activities over the next few months as she undergoes radiation treatment.

She said her experiences with Doug's cancer have given her some advantages as she fights her illness. She knows that she has a right to demand timely appointments, for example. But she acknowledges that she is still adjusting to the new reality of her life.

"I've been advocating for people so long, but when it's yourself, it's different," she said. "You're at your lowest, emotionally. Intellectually, I know I'll be fine, but emotionally, I haven't quite caught up to that."

She is anxious about the radiation, but said she is eager to get the whole thing behind her.

"It's really an inconvenience," she said. "I'm too busy for this."

The Howard County Health Department offers free mammograms for income-qualified women who are county residents. These start at age 40, or earlier if there is a specific need. Information: 410-313-4255.

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