Raising Awareness of the North Fork Breast Health Coalition

Susan Ruffini, President of the The North Fork Breast Health Coalition with Melanie McEvoy-Zuhoski, Vice President ( a two time breast cancer surviror).
North Fork Breast Health Coalition President Susan Ruffini and Vice President Melanie McEvoy at the 2018 5K Walk for Breast Cancer Awareness, Photo: Karen Weissner

While people battling breast cancer in the Hamptons have Lucia’s Angels, the Ellen Hermanson Foundation and the Coalition for Women’s Cancers at Stony Brook Southampton to turn to for support, North Forkers can rely on the North Fork Breast Health Coalition for one-time funding, community and education.

Founded in 1998 by Ann Cotten-DeGrasse and Antonio DeGrasse, one of the first services the coalition began offering was the Lend a Helping Hand grant, which provides North Forkers (through Calverton and Flanders) undergoing breast cancer treatment with one-time funding to pay for anything that will ease stress in such a trying time—medical bills, house cleaning, meal preparation, transportation or a relaxing spa day. Coalition Vice President Melanie McEvoy reports that grant requests have nearly tripled this year, adding, “I think it’s, in part, because of the economy and how everything came crashing down. Maybe some of the women who didn’t think they needed the money before, now they do.”

In addition to funding, the coalition typically offers massage therapy, reflexology, yoga and meditation classes, though they’ve put the in-person classes on hold indefinitely until the people they serve are more comfortable. Yoga, however, has made a successful transition to Zoom classes and is offered Thursdays at 6 p.m. “It’s been a really good space for our ladies to come together,” McEvoy says of the much-needed social interaction available even in a virtual setting.

McEvoy understands first-hand the vital importance of the Coalition’s services, having sought their help after she was diagnosed in 2010. After taking the necessary steps to manage that first scare, McEvoy joined the board to help others do the same. “For me, it’s very personal. I’m actually a two-time early stage breast cancer survivor,” she says. “I had a recurrence two years ago, and my board was just amazingly supportive of everything that I was going through. That’s the reason I got involved [around 2012]—because of the work they do—and I wanted to give back to the organization that helped me so much. It’s rewarding for me in general, because I feel so connected to the cause, the issue and being able to connect with other women who are going through it, because it’s very scary. To have them be able to talk to somebody who’s gone through it not once but twice, I think is a good thing. It gives them hope. For me, it’s a labor of love.”

The North Fork Breast Health Coalition board at the 2019 Tanger Walk, Photo: Courtesy NFBHC
The North Fork Breast Health Coalition board at the 2019 Tanger Outlets Walk, Photo: Courtesy NFBHC

A key aspect of the Coalition’s work is education and spreading awareness of preventative breast health measures—both annual mammograms for adults over age 40 and self-exams for people over the age of 16. Thankfully, awareness has risen exponentially on the East End and across the United States in recent years. “Breast cancer awareness has been elevated in the last decade to almost a screaming-pink-in-your-face moment, which is great because many many people are much more comfortable doing the self-exams and are always talking about it,” McEvoy explains. “It’s a much more open dialogue about what things to look for, how you find it, how it manifests, that kind of thing. For women and men, the awareness is there, and I think that’s nationwide, not just on the North Fork.”

The next component after awareness, McEvoy continues, is the question of, “Now what?” that comes with a late stage breast cancer diagnosis, an increasingly common diagnosis as both a first-time scare and as a recurrence after the early stage cancer is treated. “When you’re late stage, it’s more about how you can extend your life,” she says, adding that the Coalition has been in talks about expanding their focus to better educate people about both stages. “With that, it’s a combination of education—finding out what late stage is and that there’s no cure. You will not be cured. You will live with this for the rest of your life, and research is what’s going to save you. Research is finding new drugs, finding new solutions…. What we’d like to do is turn late stage breast cancer into something that is not terminal but a disease that you can live with. And it’s not that right now.”

For individuals with either early or late stage breast cancer, the North Fork has a wealth of resources, top oncologists, screening services and treatment centers. Between Northwell Health Imaging, Peconic Bay Medical Center, Stony Brook’s Eastern Long Island Hospital, the New York Cancer & Blood Specialists and others, the North Fork currently offers more options than in years past.

The surplus of service providers doesn’t mean the treatment process is necessarily easier, though. McEvoy points out the unfortunate reality that COVID regulations have left many people feeling more scared and alone than ever. “It’s hard for the women going through treatment, because they often can’t bring somebody with them. They’re by themselves,” she says. “And sometimes you find out more information or you get an update on your diagnosis, and it’s hard to retain everything by yourself. That support isn’t there, because it physically can’t be there due to COVID.”

The Coalition’s goal is to reach these people and others like them who need to be assured that they’re not alone on this daunting journey. “I believe so much in what we do and how much we support the breast cancer community on the East End. It’s not often a service that people are aware of until they need it, then they might find out about us,” McEvoy says. “My mission is always to get the word out about all the good work we do, because we want to be able to touch everybody who’s going through this in some way…. The more people that know about the work we do, the longer the reach we’ll have into the community and the stronger we’ll be.”

However, with the annual gala canceled and the Tanger Outlets walk made virtual this year, the Coalition’s funding has been strained during the pandemic. The best way to help them support North Fork women and men is with direct donations, which can be made online in the donor’s name or in honor of a loved one. As a volunteer-run nonprofit, the Coalition directs 100% of funds to its grants, services, service providers and office. Individuals can also support the Coalition, Lucia’s Angels and the Coalition for Women’s Cancers at Stony Brook Southampton at the virtual Shelter Island 5K Run/Walk (shelterislandfall5k.com) beginning Saturday, October 17.

To learn more about the North Fork Breast Health Coalition’s services or to donate, visit northforkbreasthealth.org. Contact the Coalition at [email protected] or 631-208-8889.

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