Dancing for a cause

Fundraiser gets word out about esophageal cancer

April 06, 2009|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,stephanie.desmon@baltsun.com

The back of the T-shirt everyone was wearing Sunday said it all: "Heartburn can cause cancer."

The Mordecai family didn't know that when John "Monte" Mordecai was diagnosed two years ago with esophageal cancer. He died less than a year later at age 63. In his honor - and ultimately in his memory - his daughter Mara, now 13, wanted to spread the word about this deadly disease, one that claims nearly all who are diagnosed with it, in the hope that no one else would have to lose their father to something that could have been caught sooner if only he had known to be on the lookout.

So on Sunday, Mara and her mother, Mindy Mintz Mordecai, put on the second annual Dance for the Cure, an effort to raise money for esophageal cancer research and to raise awareness of the disease, which has been linked to acid reflux.

"If we had known that was a risk, he could have gone in for an endoscopy," Mordecai said. "More people in America die every year of esophageal cancer than melanoma. And we all know about sunscreen."

About 16,470 new cases of esophageal cancer were diagnosed in 2008 - more than twice the number of cases 30 years ago - and about 14,280 died of the disease last year, according to the American Cancer Society. Of course, not everyone with acid reflux will get cancer.

The event, held at the Towson University Center for the Arts, was a way to link two of Mara's great loves: her father and dance. Participants were asked to gather pledges to enable them to dance in classes all day long. Mordecai, a reporter for Maryland Public Television, said she didn't care how much money was raised, just that the dancers went out and talked to people about what they were doing and told people about the risks of the disease.

"I don't care if they get a pledge," she said. "If they tell somebody about it, they're doing our job. They're getting the word out."

There was every kind of dance imaginable Sunday, from tango to ballet, from Afro-Caribbean to Greek, from hula to tap. A Rockette taught kick lines. A Johns Hopkins thoracic surgeon who had treated Monte Mordecai taught ballroom dancing.

John Miller, 66, made a go at belly dancing. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which was discovered after Miller made a throwaway comment to his gastroenterologist that he had long suffered from heartburn but didn't any longer. The doctor ordered an endoscopy, which revealed the cancer. Miller had part of his esophagus removed and the healthy part attached to his stomach. He is now cancer-free. He wants to make sure others - including doctors - understand there can be a link between reflux and cancer.

"It's all about awareness," the retired federal worker from Columbia said. "They're trying to make doctors aware [too], because doctors aren't aware."

In a studio downstairs, Idaline Lipsky, who teaches fifth and sixth grade at Krieger Schechter Day School in Pikesville, and Kristen Wavle, a middle school counselor there, were having a blast at the hip-hop class taught by Eugene "Bubba" Lloyd, who teaches the youngest Mordecai, 10-year-old Maya.

Lloyd began the class by telling them the point was to have fun. That was good, because the complicated moves had the class twisting in knots trying to keep up. "I have this saying in all my hip-hop classes, and you can take it to the bank: Fake it till you make it," Lloyd said. "You got it? Just say you'll try."

Though the teachers tried to hide in the back of this class, Lloyd made sure they were in plain sight, moving them up to the front at one point. They laughed through the whole workout. And they were thrilled they could participate in something that means so much to the Mordecai girls, who are students at the school.

"I like to dance anyway," Wavle said. "Despite the fact that I have no rhythm, how could I not want to be involved in something like this?"

Said Lipsky: "It's just so upbeat, even for the cause it is."

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