Burlington County Times: Fighting cancer, one woman at a time

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in the Burlington County Times on Tuesday, October 22, 2013.

Fighting cancer, one woman at a time

By Sally Friedman
Correspondent-Burlington County Times

It was going to be a routine executive physical. Extensive but routine.

Susan Bass Levin, former mayor of Cherry Hill and a cabinet member for three New Jersey governors as the Commissioner of Community Affairs, was feeling fine when she had that physical in 2003 at age 51. But as sometimes happens, the unexpected replaced the expected.

A gynecologist spotted an ovarian irregularity, ordered more tests, and soon, Bass Levin was facing a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

“I was never angry, just very concerned, of course. But I’m fortunate to have an optimistic outlook,” she said.

There would be surgery, and chemotherapy. But what Bass Levin remembers best was the kindness of a nurse at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital who stayed up with her through the long, dark night of her diagnosis, watching movies and simply understanding that being there mattered.

So Bass Levin, now president and chief executive officer of the Cooper Foundation at Cooper University Health System, has never forgotten that reaching out to other women is a mighty gift.

She went public to dispel rumors that she was going to resign from her cabinet position, calling a press conference to tell her story. She has continually emphasized that ovarian cancer is particularly difficult to detect, as Bass Levin learned, especially in the early and most treatable stages, when symptoms are vague or silent.

Several years ago, she attended a small fundraising event for women who had the same diagnosis that had been organized by two ovarian cancer survivors. She was moved by the experiences, and when that group dissolved, Bass Levin had an even grander vision. Four years ago, “Pink Roses Teal Magnolias” was created, with Bass Levin leading the way.

Its mission: to fight gynecologic and breast cancers through research, early detection, improved medical treatment and increased awareness. Proceeds from its annual event, which draws hundreds of women and their families, benefit the newly opened MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper. Bass Levin has devoted many months to the planning and launching of the state-of-the-art center.

This year, the annual brunch will be held 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Crowne Plaza in Cherry Hill.

Carol Gaskill of Evesham will surely be there. An activist for Pink Roses Teal Magnolias, she is a survivor of both breast and gynecologic cancers.

With no family history of breast cancer, she was diagnosed in 1987 at age 47 and chose to have a double mastectomy. “It was my way of dealing with a disease I didn’t want to worry about for the rest of my life,” she said.

A former executive in advertising, Gaskill later became chief of staff for the late John Adler, when he served in the New Jersey Legislature, and also was as director of communications for New Jersey Attorney General David Sampson, from 2002 to 2003.

But the disease would revisit Gaskill, with endometrial cancer nearly two decades after her breast cancer, and more recently, when lung, liver and colon cancer were diagnosed. Along the way, Gaskill also lost her husband and a son.

Through it all — including radiation and chemotherapy treatments — Gaskill has maintained a remarkable perspective, and shared her experience at a recent Pink Roses Teal Magnolias event.

“I certainly didn’t want pity,” she said, “so when friends called, I insisted that they have at least three jokes ready to tell me. It’s been a perfect way to make everyone, including me, feel better.”

It’s the courage of women like Gaskill that has inspired and moved Dr. Generosa Grana, director of the MD Anderson Center at Cooper and a medical oncologist. This year, she will be honored at the fourth annual Pink Roses Teal Magnolias brunch.

“The women who tell their stories at the brunch are the true heroines. And I’m extremely optimistic about the future for all women because of advances in genetic research, clinical trials, research and this new and promising era of survivorship,” said Grana.

The physician is deeply moved by the stories told in a portion of the brunch called “The Faces of Survivors.” Several women share their own stories with the hundreds of guests at the event, and emotions run high.

“Then every survivor is invited onto the stage as we honor and cheer them,” said Bass Levin. “The music we play is breast cancer survivor Melissa Etheridge’s ‘Run For Life,’ and the words certainly have very special meaning for everyone in that room.”

Those words:

“I run for hope

“I run to feel

“I run for the truth, for all that is real.

“I run for your mother, your sister, your wife.

“I run for life!”

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