Those are the words Ann Cotten DeGrasse uses to describe how it felt when she learned she had to have two biopsies after a routine breast exam in the late 1990s.
“It was nerve-wracking,” DeGrasse said, recalling the road of uncertainty that lay ahead.
Though, fortunately, she was never diagnosed with breast cancer, the health scare was enough to catapult DeGrasse and her late husband, Antonio, into action after identifying a gap in support and services for those navigating the disease on the North Fork.
Antonio recruited several fellow Rotarians and quickly gained support from local businesses like Tanger Outlets and the North Fork Breast Health Coalition was born in 1998.
Twenty-five years later, the NFBHC continues to raise funds for services that assist North Fork residents — women and men — who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. Tanger Outlets still hosts an annual 5K walk to help spread awareness each fall. But the all-volunteer nonprofit organization’s impact has only grown stronger in the last two decades, working to encourage and assist in the prevention, early detection and cure of breast cancer through advocacy, awareness, networking and research.
Currently led by Melanie McEvoy Zuhoski, the coalition provides support to local breast cancer patients through grants for house cleaning, meal preparation, transportation expenses or just a day of relaxation at a local spa and free services including gentle yoga, massage therapy, reflexology, counseling and support groups to patients and survivors. They also run a boutique with wigs, prosthetic devices and other items for patients that may need extras that may not be covered under insurance.
In 2020, the organization established the Stage IV Breast Cancer Research and Support Fund, which was renamed in 2021 in memory of Keri Lynn Stromski, a beloved local educator who died from stage 4 metastatic breast cancer.
Stromski, who died at 48, was a fierce advocate for breast cancer patients, particularly those with late-stage diagnoses. She passionately railed against “pinkwashing,” a phenomenon especially during October as companies and organizations use the iconic pink ribbon to market their products without providing transparency about how the proceeds benefit breast cancer research, and rallied for more lifesaving research for later stage cancers.
Zuhoski said she’s particularly proud of that fund, which helps stage 4 patients and also helps provide financial support to oncologists who are actively performing cutting-edge research on extending and saving the lives of stage 4 patients.
“We want to switch the focus on late-stage because it’s literally a death sentence — that has not changed,” Zuhoski said.
Breast cancer remains the second-most common cancer among women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Every dollar we raise goes right back into the community,” Zuhoski explained. “But there’s a lot we want to do.”
In addition to support for annual events like the 5K run/walk and Pink Pearl Gala, donations of time and talent are needed to help the coalition.
Consider becoming a volunteer or making a monetary donation to help them continue these lifesaving services.