Making a difference to cancer patients

Fifteen years ago, Ann Cotten-Degrasse of Riverhead had a suspicious lump in her right breast that turned out to be benign. Two years later, doctors discovered another suspicious lump. That, too, was found to be benign. But she remembers the anxiety she lived with until she got the good news. When she retired in the late 1990s from teaching business courses in the Riverhead School District, she was naturally drawn to assisting those not so fortunate with their diagnoses.

She wanted work with people who were involved in a cancer mapping project in the 1990s but was told the best way she could help would be to organize a North Fork Breast Health Coalition.

Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse and her husband, Antonio, took the challenge to heart. They tapped into a like-minded group of people in the community and, with a $3,000 grant from the Riverhead Rotary Club, established the coalition as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. The year was 1998 and, after paying for the cost of incorporating and getting tax-exempt status, they had little more than $300 in the bank to launch the coalition’s activities.

The aim of the North Fork Breast Health Coalition is to provide support services and grants to breast cancer patients and their caregivers while educating women about breast self-exams and supporting research into the disease.

Every year, much effort goes into raising $15,000 to $20,000, and at first, Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse said, it was “like pulling teeth.” After initial struggles, she began visiting doctors’ offices and speaking at various civic association meetings to spread the word about the need for funds and the availability of grants to help offset some of the crushing expenses a breast cancer patient inevitably has to bear.

A chance meeting with Tanger CEO Janine Nebons led to the establishment of an annual 5K walk at the Riverhead outlet center, which nets the organization between $15,000 and $20,000 annually. There have been other fundraising events, including an auction of works by local artists and an annual golf tournament, both of which add to the coffers. With $1,000 grants going out the door, the more money that came in, the more the North Fork Breast Health Coalition could give to those in need, Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse said.

Most of the grants go to offset medical expenses, including co-pays for doctors’ appointments, prescriptions and treatments. But some patients seek grants to pay for transportation to chemotherapy sessions and doctor visits when they’re too weak to drive or need gasoline for their own vehicles.

Many recipients initially say there are others who need the money more than they do, Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse said. But once they start making co-pays, she added, they quickly discover how costly breast cancer treatments are and how much isn’t covered by their insurance companies.

One grateful grant recipient wrote her: “I cannot thank you enough for your dedication and commitment in helping women in their time of need. Organizations like the one that you represent provides light at the end of the tunnel in our fight for life.”

In addition to its grants and Lend a Helping Hand program, which assists patients undergoing chemotherapy or radiation by helping them manage personal and home commitments, the group is now able to offer regular weekly yoga classes, massages and pedicures, reflexology, acupuncture and support groups with a licensed social worker/hynotherapist.

Thanks to e-mail, grant applications can generally be processed rapidly, giving patients a check within a week, Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse said.

“We know that people need the money now,” she said, emphasizing that applications are handled on a confidential basis.

In a tight economy, Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse was worried last year that the Tanger funding would shrink or disappear. Instead, she was surprised to get a call informing her that the North Fork Breast Health Coalition had been selected to receive the profits from a program that invites shoppers to pay $1 for a coupon that grants them a 25 percent discount on goods purchased from Tanger stores. That program generated more than $115,000 for the coalition, enabling it to expand its services. Money has also come from the county through Legislator Ed Romaine and the state through Assemblyman Marc Alessi and Sen. Kenneth LaValle.

But with government sources hard pressed to pay for a lot of services this year, Ms. Cotten-DeGrasse expects to see most if not all that money dry up and to have to find other ways to raise money.

If you’re a patient in need of a grant, or wish to volunteer services and/or contribute money, call 208-8889. Checks made payable to the North Fork Breast Health Coalition can be mailed to P.O. Box 523, 185 Old Country Road, Suite 6, Riverhead, NY 11901.

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