Thirty-one years ago, Ruth Cowan, a past president of the National Council of Jewish Women, Bergen County Section, got a disturbing phone call from a friend in the group. Diagnosed with breast cancer, the woman had followed the typical prescribed course of treatment at the time: chemotherapy coupled with radical mastectomy.
With the cancer in remission, her physician, Dr. Frank Gump, the head of the breast cancer surgery at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York, couldn’t have been happier.
The patient, however, complained, "I need something more," recalled Cowan. A physical therapist, Cowan understood. Soon after, Cowan and another friend in NCJW, Shirley Hart, collaborated to form After Breast Cancer Surgery, based on a simple premise and with a straightforward program: a defined course of physical therapy and emotional support, critical twin ingredients in recovery from breast cancer surgery.
Now, after having helped more than 1,500 women and two men get back on their feet after a life-altering experience with breast cancer, the group is disbanding. At one time, there was a waiting list for the eight-week sessions of physical therapy and group discussions that ABCs offered three times a year, free of charge. But, only three women signed up for last spring’s session too few for an effective group discussion that follows the pool and floor exercises designed to restore range of motion to the arms and improve posture. With rehabilitative services now available at many area hospitals and fewer women undergoing radical mastectomy as early detection and treatment options have proliferated, it has become evident, said Cowan, that ABCs is no longer in demand.
ABCs’ steering committee, dominated by breast cancer survivors who themselves went through the program, arrived at the decision to close down with a heavy heart, said Susan Laskin, ABCs’ president for 10 years. Laskin, too, is among the hundreds who credits ABCs for letting her get her life back after the trauma of battling breast cancer, 11 years ago, when she was 4′. Her closest friends remain those she made through ABCs, and she called Cowan "remarkable" for the compassion and dedication that motivated her not only to launch the program but also to donate her time and professional services.
The steering committee and executive board continue to meet to tackle administrative issues, such as what to do with money remaining in ABCs’ budget. The decision was made, said Laskin, to contribute the funds to the agencies that have sponsored and supported ABCs through the decades. These include the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township, ABCs’ home base, and Cancer Care, Inc. of North Jersey, a Ridgewood agency that supplied Kathy Nugent, a psychotherapist who has run the ABCs discussion group for the past few years. ABCs will also thank: NCJW; American Cancer Society, Northern New Jersey Region, which routinely made referrals; and the YWCA of Bergen County in Hackensack, which first housed ABCs. The YJCC plans to spend the money on adaptive and rehabilitative equipment for its program for special needs youth and for new warming carts for its senior adult lunch program, said Carol Beyer, director of organizational development.
Laskin is hoping that some of the donated funds will be dedicated to battling breast cancer aiding the victims and promoting a cure. "I didn’t expect ABCs to disband until breast cancer was eradicated. But [it is] still out there killing women."