Ellen Hermanson’s list of achievements and accolades is extensive, to say the least.
A journalist by trade, she was an activist and advocate for breast cancer survivors, giving voice to their stories while educating her readers. She served on the board of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship and edited its quarterly newsletter. She was appointed the first executive director of the Judges and Lawyers Breast Cancer Alert, and she co-founded the Jewish Healing Center, serving as the first editor of its newsletter, “The Outstretched Arm.”
All the while, she was waging a war against breast cancer herself — a battle she ultimately lost on April 11, 1995, at the age of 42. Two years later, her sisters, Julie Ratner and Emily Levin, co-founded The Ellen Hermanson Foundation to not only honor her memory, but to also continue the important work she began.
On Saturday evening, the foundation will hold its 25th anniversary Virtual Summer Gala Fundraiser hosted by Lucas Hunt, featuring entertainment by comedian Jessica Kirson and Broadway actor Tovah Feldshuh, in honor of Cristina Cuomo, Kristen Dahlgren, Patti Askwith Kenner and Edyle O’Brien.
The 25th annual Ellen’s Run will also take on a virtual format this year, due to the COVID-19 crisis, allowing participants to chart their own course and complete the 5K from August 16 to 31, according to Ms. Ratner.
“We’re hoping people support us, we’re hoping we can come close to raising the money we’ve raised in the past,” she said. “Because even during a pandemic, breast cancer is not taking a break, and we won’t either. We will do everything we can to make sure these services are available.”
Ahead of the two milestone fundraisers, Ms. Ratner caught up with the Express News Group, reflecting on the grassroots origins of The Ellen Hermanson Foundation and the woman who inspired it all.
The Express News Group: Twenty-five years — wow, what an accomplishment.
Julie Ratner: Who would have thought? When I started this in 1996, I had no idea that we were gonna do all that we’ve done and be around so long. We were very bold and brave because we called it our “first annual” Ellen’s Run. So we clearly anticipated more than one run. I just didn’t know that we would end up having 25 runs.
Before I did Ellen’s Run, I was a school librarian and becoming an academic. The year before, I had just earned my doctorate from Columbia, so I was really on a different course. And then it switched.
Q. Tell me how the run and, a year later, the foundation got started.
The run came first and it was in the spring of 1996. I had met a new friend, a woman named Vivian Shapiro, who was a close friend of my sister-in-law’s, and I had just defended my dissertation. And I was having coffee with her right across from the Museum of Natural History, and telling her about Ellen, and she said, “What a remarkable sister you had. Don’t you think you ought to do something to honor her advocacy, her work on behalf of other people with cancer, especially women with breast cancer?”
And my answer was, “Yes! I’m struggling to think of what would be the perfect thing to do to honor Ellen’s memory.” And she looked at me and said, “You run marathons, let’s do a run.” And I said, “Okay!” And literally that’s how it began.
We decided we would hold a meeting on Memorial Day weekend and gather a group of friends and launch a run, and we did! We did it from the dining room table, and we didn’t have a clue. Honestly, I didn’t even know I needed to get a permit from the Town of East Hampton for a gathering. I knew nothing. I knew absolutely nothing. I learned really quickly, and that was the beginning.
Q. What was the first run like?
We arrived at East Hampton High School at about 5:30 in the morning to pack the goodie bags. We had 500 people. They come to register, we’re packing bags, it was a total disaster, and we loved it. Everyone was very kind to us and they loved the message, which was really about educational support and outreach about the importance of mammography, early detection and saving lives. We’ve slightly modified our mission, but it’s always been about saving lives and making sure that people have access to care. Ellen would have been very concerned about that.
It’s a core tenant of The Ellen Hermanson Foundation that access to medical care in a country like America ought to be a human right — and it’s not, and we hope someday it will be. And the way we approach the foundation is anyone who needs to come, all our services at Ellen’s Well are free of charge.
Q. What services does Ellen’s Well provide?
It’s under the auspices of an oncolcogial social worker [Edyle O’Brien], and we offer all these support modalities, again, free of charge. We have support groups for women who are newly diagnosed, women with metastatic disease and ongoing wellness. Our social worker meets with these groups — now, obviously, virtually — as well as she does individual counseling, end of life counseling. And in her beautiful, inimitable, wise way, she saves lives every day because she helps women and their families live with the terrible anxiety and insecurity of a life-threatening disease.
Q. What is one of the foundation’s greatest achievements from over the past 25 years?
I think The Ellen Hermanson Breast Center [at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital] represents the best medicine. You walk in there and it is warm, it is safe. I go there and I don’t think I get any special treatment — I would certainly hope I don’t — and I feel that it’s a welcoming place. The techs take time to talk to you and you feel like you’re special, and that’s good.
The Breast Center has all the latest technology. In fact, I just spoke with Kevin Unruh, who’s the vice president of radiology at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, and I said, “So what do you see in needs of technology?” He said, “You’re not gonna believe this: Nothing. The Ellen Hermanson Breast Center has everything it needs of all the most advanced technology. There’s nothing right now.” And I thought, that’s like Sloan Kettering, or Columbia, or Weill Cornell. How fabulous, we are as good as any place, and in fact, we’re better because it’s warm, it’s welcoming and it’s safe.
Q. How has the hardship of having breast cancer changed since the COVID-19 pandemic?
The thing about breast cancer, especially now during coronavirus, is we all have ongoing lives, which are complex, often difficult, can be very happy and complicated. And that’s just normal, everyday, and then you overlay that with a diagnosis of breast cancer and it’s just up for grabs because the pressure becomes terrible, the anxiety, you have everything else you’re dealing with, plus this terrible diagnosis. And it’s now complicated even further with coronavirus.
Q. What words of encouragement would you give to those who have received a diagnosis over the last few months?
You’re going to become a member of a sisterhood you never wanted to belong to, that you will love deeply. There are so many wonderful women out there who will become your safety net and your support. Use them and take advantage of everything that comes your way.
This is not what you ever asked for, this is not what you expected, and yet this is your hand and you get to play it how you want to play it. So while it’s going to be terrible, you get to think about who your doctors are, the treatment, what kind of emotional experience you want to bring to it, who you want to have support you, what you want to do.
Ellen said to me, “You’re not gonna believe this, Julie, but breast cancer’s been an opportunity.” And I said, “Really?” She said, “Yes, I’ve used my time. It’s an opportunity to do all the things I want to do. And to do things that are important to me.” And as her disease became worse, she was a writer, and she only did things that were important to her because it related to her life.
Q. What do you think Ellen would think about the foundation today?
I don’t actually know. And the reason I don’t know is because I think she would be like, “Really? All this, for me?” I think she’d be a little bit incredulous. My sister was quite spectacular. She had great humility. She was inspiring, and she was really inspiring to me, the way she dealt with her disease.
Her daughter, her baby, was only 6 months old when she was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. My niece never knew her mother healthy. She never knew a mother who could go on a class trip, or could just sit on the floor and play with her. And I wanted her to remember that she had a mother who loved every hair in her head, who loved her unconditionally, who was a spectacular human being.
And so, part of starting this was, I feel like I’m the memory keeper. Ellen and I were almost six years apart, and she was like my mascot because I was the older sister who could do no wrong. Memory is a funny thing, the way it washes back and comes to the fore in our minds, and so often I’m together with her daughter and something will spark a memory, and I can tell her about Ellen. And even at almost 32, she has this great hunger to know everything she can about her mother.
In some ways, I feel like I’m the keeper of the memories, and I want to continue doing that. That was part of my inspiration for starting this, was to make sure all the good work Ellen did would continue beyond her 42 years.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. For more information about the 25th Anniversary Virtual Summer Gala fundraiser on Saturday, July 25, at 6:30 p.m., or the 25th annual Ellen’s Run Virtual 5K, from August 16-31, visit ellenhermanson.org.