Deputy mayor steps into the spotlight for a good cause

Breast cancer diagnosis spurred Kaliope Parthemos to take part in charity event

  • Deputy Mayor Kaliope Parthemos will be among the models at the third annual Steps to the Cure charity event this weekend.
Deputy Mayor Kaliope Parthemos will be among the models at the… (Colby Ware, Special to The…)
April 13, 2011|By Susan Reimer, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's deputy mayor is a dark-eyed, statuesque beauty, and she looks like she belongs on a runway, stepping out in a designer gown.

"I could never walk down a runway and have people look at me," says Kaliope Parthemos, her long fingers fluttering nervously around her face as she speaks in her City Hall office.

"I mean, I am 6 feet tall. I already draw all the attention when I walk in a room."

But that's where the 40-year-old Baltimore native will be Saturday night: In Hunt Valley, wearing designer dresses and borrowed gems and raising money for the fight against breast cancer.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer herself barely weeks ago. She never thought a trip down a runway would be part of her journey.

"I said I'd be mortified!" she says, laughing through tears at the memory. The ink is barely dry on her diagnosis of stage one breast cancer, and her eyes fill easily.

"No" was her first reaction when she was asked by her surgeon's nurse if she'd participate in Steps to the Cure, which raises funds to meet the needs of Maryland breast cancer patients.

Her three sisters were with her in the offices of Dr. Lauren Schnaper of Greater Baltimore Medical Center when her nurse, Barbara Raksin, who has dedicated 20 years of her career to breast cancer patients, stuck her head in the door and asked her to appear in the fundraising fashion show.

There to help Parthemos ask all the questions and to record the answers, they were devastated by their sister's illness but brightened considerably at the invitation.

"They were, like, 'You can keep the dresses!'"

Parthemos continued to resist, but when Raksin asked if she would feel better if someone walked with her, she immediately thought of her best friend's mother, a breast cancer survivor.

"So I called the mayor and I asked if Aunt Nina would walk with me."

The mayor, of course, is Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whom Parthemos has known since both were in middle school. Aunt Nina is Dr. Nina Rawlings, a pediatrician and the mayor's mother.

Parthemos' mother, Angelica, is herself a two-time breast cancer survivor. "The mayor remembers when my mother got sick, and I remember when her mother got sick."

Parthemos' cancer was caught early because, as the daughter of a breast cancer patient, she has undergone screening mammograms since she was 35. Since the fall, she has had multiple surgeries to remove the tumors as well as lymph nodes for testing, and will soon begin seven weeks of five-day-a-week radiation treatments.

"I never had the 'why me?' moment," she says. "But I have definitely had the 'why now?' moment. I mean, we are in the middle of a budget and a re-election campaign. What is it they say? You make plans, and God laughs."

In front of her, on her office conference table, is a binder with color-coded dividers. Each section is devoted to one of her surgeries or to one her tests. She was tested for the breast cancer gene, for example, but she does not have it. Another test result indicated that chemotherapy is not required.

The notebook stands as testimony that the mayor's seven-day-a-week, 16-hour-day assistant for economic development, never without her BlackBerry and her laptop, would be as thorough about this project as any she undertakes for the city.

"The mayor has said, 'Take care of you.' My staff has been great. Everyone outside the office has been great. It seems like Baltimore City has wrapped its arms around me.

"But I have a responsibility to my work, my staff and the mayor. People are waiting for answers, and they can't wait for me to get better," says Parthemos, who scheduled her procedures for holidays, when City Hall is closed.

"Although I have to admit that I got more work done at home after my surgeries than I get done at the office, with everybody in and out."

Parthemos also feels a responsibility to the women in her life who have had breast cancer, including a cousin who was diagnosed just months after her wedding but who now has a son, and to the women watching her whom she does not know.

She wants to demonstrate that breast cancer doesn't have to be a death sentence. She knows she is "lucky," if that word can be used in the same sentence with "cancer."

"I should be done with radiation by the middle of June. My birthday is at the end of June. We have all these concerts coming up this summer in the city, and we have the Indy car race.

"They say that colors are brighter and the world looks different for people who have survived cancer. That's what I want to think about."

If you go

The third annual Steps to the Cure starts at 6 p.m. Saturday at Martin's Valley Mansion, 594 Cranbrook Road, Cockeysville. Tickets are $150-$250. Call 410-818-4252 or email webadmin@stepstothecure.

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