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LOCAL HERO

A Hand of Hope for Cancer Patients

August 30, 1995|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In July, 1982, Sandy Cohen became one of approximately 120,000 American women found to have breast cancer that year. She underwent a mastectomy and reconstruction at the John Wayne Cancer Institute, then based at UCLA.

Not content to be a mere statistic, Cohen wanted to give something back in appreciation for the quality of care she received. With 15 friends, she formed a support group for the institute.

Thus was born, in April, 1983, the John Wayne Cancer Institute Auxiliary. In the years since, the auxiliary has racked up some impressive statistics of its own: 650 members, an executive board of 40 and more than $5 million raised for cancer research and medical equipment.

"I went to the director of the institute and said, 'I can't write a check for a million dollars, but I can raise it for you,' " Cohen recalls of the auxiliary's beginnings. "It didn't take too long--a couple of years."

The auxiliary raises funds at a luncheon and fashion show each fall and at author lunches. It also presents educational programs.

Cohen volunteers at the institute, which moved to Saint John's Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica four years ago. She works every Monday at the 2 1/2-year-old Joyce Eisenberg Keefer Breast Center, a comprehensive diagnostic, treatment and educational facility.

"I've got boundless energy and I'm a very big people person," says Cohen, who is "pushing 55," a mother of two daughters, grandmother to a 6-month-old boy and who works with her husband of 33 years, Irv, in his Beverly Hills insurance brokerage.

"I've been involved in charities since my 20s," Cohen says. "I've always felt that God gives you two hands. With one, you do something for yourself, and with the other, you do for others. Audrey Hepburn said that. I felt that if I was a survivor I could help other people survive."

Calming fearful breast center patients is one of Cohen's more rewarding endeavors. She talks with the women at the behest of the center's director, Dr. Armando E. Giuliano.

Says Cohen: "I usually make them feel a hell of a lot better." And she isn't rooted to the institute. "If someone calls me and says, 'I have a friend who isn't doing well,' I'll go see her at UCLA or wherever, or talk on the phone, all over the country."

Gerri Farnell of Encino, who met Cohen 10 years ago when Farnell needed reconstruction, was so impressed she wound up on the auxiliary's executive board, where she is now in charge of the author luncheons.

Cohen recommended her own doctor to Farnell. "A mutual friend told me about Sandy," Farnell says. "She was going to recommend a doctor to do the reconstruction. We talked on the phone and met for lunch, and before I knew it, she was showing me her boobs. I took her advice, and I've been taking her advice ever since.

"I was not open to a support group, but Sandy's a support group all in one. She has the capacity to give love and support to a lot of people. She gives you the feeling that she's there for you."

Says Giuliano, chief of surgical oncology at the cancer institute, "Sandy is such a great help to people because she's been through it. Patients with breast cancer may think they have a death sentence, but here's Sandy, who went through it 13 years ago, and belies that. She's wonderful at speaking with them."

"I really love my life," says Cohen. "I hope that translates to the patients."

* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.

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