The Sag Harbor Express Person Of The Year: Duncan Darrow

Duncan Darrow, the Sag Harbor Express's 2021 Person of the Year. MICHAEL HELLER

Duncan Darrow remembers when his mother told him she was sick.

“One day, while we were in the car, she just said, ‘I think I have cancer,’” Darrow recalled.

“I said, ‘Oh, we can beat this.’ That’s a common reaction. But you quickly discover, if it is advanced, you are not going to beat it.”

Charlotte Darrow would survive about 100 days after being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, dying in May 2001.

Her son, who was struck by just how many questions he had about his mother’s disease and how difficult it had been to find answers to them on the East End, would found Fighting Chance, the nonprofit Sag Harbor cancer counseling and resource center, which provides free services to everyone who walks through the door, the following year.

With Fighting Chance on the cusp of its 20th anniversary, Darrow has been honored as The Sag Harbor Express Person of the Year for 2021.

Over the years, the nonprofit’s presence has grown, from the publication of a resource directory for patients to a full-fledged counseling and advocacy organization that provides everything from transportation to and from appointments, financial aid for those unable to afford treatments, and extensive educational, wellness and counseling services.

As a child growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Darrow, 72, a former Wall Street attorney who still maintains a part-time practice, said his father instilled in him the importance of going to bat for the underdog.

“You want to talk about underdogs — when this cancer thing stormed into my life, it ignited something that was there in me,” he said. “It wasn’t just because it was my mom whom I was taking care of. It was just such a devastating disease, and there was so much need. One day I woke up and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”

Darrow began by training as an East End Hospice volunteer, but he thought he would be better suited to help those beginning their cancer journey instead of those who were near death. He remembers being told, “If you think the last week of cancer is bad, you should see the first week.”

When he envisioned Fighting Chance as a repository for information about cancer for victims, their caregivers and families, Darrow said his initial idea was to simply put together a guide book providing cancer patients with as much information as possible.

“What I really needed was as if someone had gone through the yellow pages and taken out everything that was related to cancer,” he said. “It seems so simple, getting phone numbers and evaluating who is good.”

With the first, basic guide published and Janine Veto running a tiny office on Carruthers Alley, Karrie Robinson, a licensed clinical social worker and the former director of post-treatment resource programs at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, who had recently moved to the North Fork, reached out.

“She looked at our guide and said, “This is great, but aren’t people calling you up looking for counseling?’” Darrow said. Robinson explained to him that patients and family members alike could very well be suffering from trauma, anxiety, depression, stress and other psychological conditions.

Darrow said he was convinced that Robinson had something to offer, but when he asked if she would join the Fighting Chance team, she replied, “You don’t even have a bathroom!”

“But I have something more important than that: I have a dream,” Darrow said he responded.

“She signed on.”

Robinson began offering counseling services and organizing educational programs like the annual “Day of Hope” that brought prominent physicians and researchers to Sag Harbor to talk about the latest in cancer research and treatment options.

“Duncan gave me the opportunity to take what I knew and just expanded upon it,” Robinson said.

Life after being diagnosed with cancer “is a long, arduous journey, and there is no one way to do this,” she said.

Robinson said Fighting Chance has always focused on the individual, helping them navigate the maze of treatment options, and providing counseling services through the process, including the prospect of recurrence. “You never walk into a doctor’s appointment feeling the same way again,” she said.

Calling Darrow “a visionary,” Robinson added, “The best thing Duncan did was provide us the opportunity to take care of the community.”

Nancy Greenberg, Fighting Chance’s office manager and patient navigator, said that although Darrow is semi-retired from his law practice, “he is in and out of the office constantly. He’s a presence. He lives for Fighting Chance.”

Roman Roth, the winemaker and a partner at Wölffer Estate Vineyard, met Darrow when Fighting Chance held one of its galas at Wölffer and was soon convinced to join its board.

“Duncan is the driving force,” Roth said. “It takes so many volunteer hours, so much effort to keep an organization like Fighting Chance running. He spends the time needed to put everything together.”

Geoffrey Lynch, president of the Hampton Jitney, another Fighting Chance board member, offered his support for Darrow to be named Person of the Year for his dedication to helping those with cancer.

In a letter to The Express nominating him, Lynch recounted how Darrow pressed the Southampton-based Hampton Jitney to make a meaningful contribution to Fighting Chance. Darrow told him that many of the organization’s clients were being treated at hospitals in the city but had a hard time affording Jitney tickets.

The result was a partnership in which the Jitney agreed to sell tickets to Fighting Chance for half price. Fighting Chance, in turn, gives the tickets away. “Over a decade, several thousand cancer patients have benefited from our partnership,” he wrote.

Last year, Fighting Chance expanded that service by reaching an agreement with Hometown Taxi to provide free local transportation to its clients.

Sister Ann Marino, the director of the Cormaria Retreat in Sag Harbor, is a former Fighting Chance board member. She described the organization as “a dream that Duncan made a reality,” pointing out that patients, families, and even medical staff members “have been helped and supported in ways that no one dreamed could have happened, except for Duncan.”

She went on to describe him as “an angel like his mom prayed for when she had cancer a little over 20 years ago.”

From its tiny office, Fighting Chance has moved to new quarters at 34 Bay Street. And it has opened a satellite office in Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s Phillips Family Cancer Center in Southampton Village.

“We are America’s oldest and largest free cancer counseling center,” Darrow said.

Although Fighting Chance is well established today, Darrow said in the organization’s early years, he used to insist that his legal clients — Darrow specialized in managing distressed debt and found himself traveling the world to advise businesses when their nations’ currencies were devalued — make a sizable donation to Fighting Chance if they wanted him to take on their case.

Thanks to that arm-twisting, the organization has built up an endowment of about $600,000 to help fund it into the future.

With all the advances being made in cancer treatments, “I think there is a pretty good chance cancer will be a chronic disease in 20 years,” Darrow said. “In 20 years, I’ll be 92. Wouldn’t be great if cancer was no longer lethal?

“Maybe then it would be time to turn out the lights.”