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Fighting Back

June 11, 1988|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | Karen Newell Young is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Ginny Ueberroth, blessed with a happy family and a famous husband, ran into the same grim roadblock faced by thousands of women--breast cancer. She not only conquered it but devotes a lot of her time to making sure that others have a chance to cope with the dread disease. Her story.

Ginny Ueberroth's arms are a mass of goose bumps as she guides a golf cart around a bend. The blustery winds have blown the haze off the horizon and the green lawns of the Laguna Niguel golf course shimmer against the blue sea.

On this unusually cold May morning, Ueberroth is driving through the Links at Monarch Beach, scene of Monday's High Priority Celebrity Golf Classic. As honorary chairmen of the cancer research fund-raising event, Ueberroth and husband, Peter, Olympics Wunderkind and commissioner of baseball, are spending more time than usual on the 18 holes overlooking the ocean. And not just to play golf.

In fact, although Peter is an avid golfer, Ginny hasn't played in years. She is heading up the classic for one reason: to help spread the word that women do not have to die of breast cancer.

With the icy wind ripping through her cropped mahogany hair, Ueberroth struggles to keep a warm smile on her face as a photographer snaps her picture. Publicity-shy and private about her life, she rarely grants interviews. She smiles through gritted teeth. A photo session in an unfriendly wind is a small price to pay when it comes to saving lives.

Ueberroth was 35 when she discovered a lump in her breast. With family gathered in Laguna Beach that summer in 1976, she underwent a modified mastectomy. Peter took several weeks off to help her recover. The lump was gone, but the memory of her brush with breast cancer was not, and it paved the way for her current crusade.

As a survivor, Ueberroth wants women to know they must take responsibility for their lives; that they can prevent breast cancer through early detection.

"It's so simple, and yet it used to be something nobody talked about," she says, still shivering from the sea breeze. "I had hardly even heard of breast cancer when I got it. It just wasn't talked about. But now that we know how to prevent it, we have to talk about it."

A few months ago, a scare in the family served as a solemn reminder of that summer 12 years ago. In February, her 25-year-old daughter, Vicki, discovered a lump in her breast.

Vicki, now three months pregnant, had the lump removed. When the doctors found it to be benign, she breathed a sigh of relief but vowed to continue her own breast checks and begin yearly mammograms.

"I was very concerned about my daughters because there were so many statistics saying that it would happen to them," Ueberroth says. "I didn't want them grow says. "I didn't want them growing up believing that. On the other hand, I didn't want them to be foolish. Maybe they'll have it and maybe they won't, but I don't want them to live in fear just because I had it."

Trying to warm up after the chilly morning on the greens, Ueberroth is brewing coffee in her almond-colored kitchen in Laguna Beach and talking about one of her favorite topics: her family. With the first grandchild due in early autumn, family history is in the making. Schedules will begin to center on the baby, and new parents Vicki and Bill will be driving from Los Angeles to Orange County more often to see the new grandparents.

The sleek, cream-colored house that hugs a hillside in north Laguna will be the scene of more and more family gatherings. Like a couple of schoolgirls discussing the next dance, mother and daughter make little effort to hide their giddiness. It is clear that the Ueberroth clan will make quite a welcoming committee for the new baby.

The baby may well have played a major role also in Peter's surprise announcement this week that he would not serve a second term as baseball commissioner. "He wants to spend more time with the family," his wife said, adding that she did not know what he plans to do next, although she says he's looking forward to attracting less attention for a while. "He's had such a visible job in the past," she said, making no secret of the fact that she's happy with his decision.

"It's still almost two years away so we'll still have some involvement in New York. He really enjoys New York, but he'd rather make (California) his headquarters in what he does, and who knows what he'll do? But he likes California so much."

"He loves the ocean. . . . Now he's a skin diver . . . and he spends a lot of time in the water."

Slim and vivacious, with eyes that crinkle when she smiles, Ueberroth could be mistaken for a younger woman. As she smoothes the wrinkles from her navy blue linen pants, she recites the family's whereabouts: Peter is out of town on business, daughter Heidi is in France and the youngest children, Keri and Joe, are in college.

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