Look at Julie Ratner. Radiant Ratner. Trim and athletic. A mane of dark reddish curly hair flows to her shoulders in ringlets. Though no longer running marathons, she is running to save the lives of women with breast cancer.
It all started with the painfully prolonged death of her sister Ellen Hermanson; it started as a small controlled fire of cancer, but then it spread and consumed her like a conflagration.
Ellen, like her sister, was known for her adamant intelligence, her devotion to causes. Each day that she lived was a day of absorbing the world, of learning, of committing her intellectual strength to the support of others. She breathed in information and exhaled solutions. She tackled problems like a scientist in a lab. She was on her way to becoming a prominent financial journalist. Her interrupted journey ended in agony.
Ellen was 35 when she gave birth to her daughter. Prior to that, when she was 34, Ellen had a complete physical, including a mammogram, just to ensure that she would be able to breast-feed her baby. All tests were a testimony to Ellen’s good health.
Ellen breast-fed her baby for six months, then something went wrong. She could no longer breast-feed. She felt a lump in her breast. Doctors examined her and came to the conclusion that her problem stemmed from a blocked milk duct. But that was not the cause of her pain. She knew the doctors had missed something, and she was right, for the subsequent biopsy revealed cancer.
Frightened, confused, despairing. Tears welled in her eyes as she held her 6-month-old baby in her arms. Was that her fate? A future with no future? A fire curtain was coming down, isolating her from the lives of those she loved, the lives that would go on without her.
No. Defiance strengthens the will, the will to live. Ellen would fight. She would fight and win. Not just for herself, but also for her baby daughter, who would have a mother to inspire her. Ellen wanted to write the early chapters of her daughter’s life and then read those chapters that her daughter would write. One cannot bring a child into the world and then disappear. She would go on.
A loyal, concerned sister, Julie called friends, health care institutions, breast cancer groups. She collected names of surgeons and oncologists. She set up a series of appointments. Ellen and Julie spent more than an hour in the waiting room of one surgeon, and when he emerged, his lizard-like eyes slithered from one sister to the other. He was as cold as any cold-blooded creature could be. Julie and Ellen left, feeling like war-weary refugees who had been denied passports to safety.
Next on their list was a doctor who seemed to dwell in a far different climate, a temperate zone of warmth and understanding. He was Michael Osborne, and his personality was like a reassuring arm thrown over Ellen’s shoulder. His first procedure was to drain an abscess in Ellen’s breast that was the cause of burning pain. He prescribed medication to stop the production of milk. Next came a modified radical mastectomy, followed by the removal of 20 lymph nodes, each of which proved positive for cancer.
The verdict was Stage 4 cancer. There could be no worse sentence. To say that Ellen was terrified would be an understatement. She needed a brilliant oncologist to guide her treatment, and she found that person in Dr. Larry Norton at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. He offered reassuring words and seemed to believe that the proper course of chemotherapy would send Ellen’s cancer into remission.
Along the way, Ellen lost all of her lovely hair. She vomited often and painfully. There was no anti-nausea medicine at that time. Debilitation, weariness, desolation were daily companions. And yet, and yet. . . . There was her baby daughter. There were hope and prayers and a belief that each day would lead to another, and that Ellen would wake each morning to the rising of the sun.
The chemo performed the trick of remission, and Ellen had two years of excitement and fulfillment. She enthusiastically raised her daughter. She wrote annual reports for major corporations. She wrote a book for Sylvia Porter, an acclaimed personal financial guru. As Julie said, “Ellen was on a roll. She was productive and happy and incredibly energetic.”
To wake with a pain here or there is not unusual for middle-age humans. For a cancer victim, it can be an announcement of foreboding. The pain in Ellen’s clavicle did not diminish after she showered, as many pains do. It did not diminish as she ate her breakfast. And when she took a deep breath, raising her diaphragm, the pain only intensified. She imagined a knife shaving away slivers of her collarbone.
She returned to Sloan-Kettering, feeling as if she were to be tried for a crime she did not commit. Tests revealed that the cancer had returned. And it had returned with a vengeance. It had invaded her spine and then all the bones in her skeleton; it was waging all-out war on every organ in her body.
Operations proceeded like failed counterattacks. She received a new hip but still couldn’t walk. She and her husband had to give up their fourth-floor walk-up apartment in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. Ellen could not even lift her leg to get into the shower. She spent most of her time in a wheelchair.
Later she would lose control of many of her bodily functions. Her humanity was deserting her, leaving her without dignity. For a woman who was obsessively neat, who loved keeping her apartment spotless, her debilitated condition was an insult to her values.
And yet, and yet. Ellen was a fighter. She joined the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship and edited its newsletter, Networker. She worked diligently to comfort others and in so doing would comfort herself. She tried desperately to ignore the pain that was her unrelenting, sadistic torturer.
Finally, the pain and destruction that she endured propelled her back to Sloan-Kettering. She entered on a rainy Thursday afternoon. By Sunday, she was unconscious, yet her body agitated with pain. She was given stronger and stronger pain medications, yet she still agitated. The pain seemed determined to stick around until Ellen was beyond feeling. On Tuesday morning at 4:30, April 11, 1995, Ellen sighed. Her breath and her pain left her.
To memorialize her sister and to help all women who suffer from breast cancer, Julie Ratner started Ellen’s Run on the South Fork. The 5K is now in its 18th year, and more than 1,000 women, men, and children participate every summer. Ellen’s Run recently pledged $220,000 to buy the first 3D mammography machine for Southampton Hospital. It raised more than $1,000,000 for the Ellen Hermanson Breast Center, also at Southampton Hospital. The center expanded what had been a 1,200-square-foot space to one that is 3,200 consolidated square feet.
“Ellen’s Run makes sure that no woman with breast cancer is ever turned away from the center at Southampton Hospital. If they don’t have insurance or cannot otherwise pay for treatment, we will find options for them so that their cancer does not go untreated,” Julie Ratner said. “I am determined to make life bearable for all women who get breast cancer. Even if there is no cure forthcoming, I want to make sure that their daily lives are not spent in misery, that they are not left alone to ponder their disease and be depressed. That is one reason why we get together on a regular basis and support one another.”
“It is my intention to set up an Ellen’s Run in other communities. And unlike other charitable institutions, we want each E.R. to be a grassroots organization that is self-supporting and does not have to support some top-heavy central administrative organization. Ellen’s Run is for everyday people on each and every day that they need help and support. It’s what Ellen would have wanted, and I’m here to make sure it happens.”
The next 5K Ellen’s Run will take place on Aug. 18 at 9 a.m. It begins and ends at Southampton Hospital’s Parrish Hall. More information is at ellensrun.org.
Jeffrey Sussman is writing a book about cancer survivors and those who treat and support victims of cancer. A part-time East Hampton resident, he is president of Jeffrey Sussman Inc., a public relations and marketing company.