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Hotline of Hope: Jane Rodney of the YW’s Breast Cancer
Resource Center champions a cause she knows all too well.
This article by Melinda Sherwood was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 5, 1999. All rights reserved.
In the privacy of her office, Jane Rodney counsels
a woman who needs chemotherapy. Wigs, ranging in color from gray to
platinum blonde, are stacked high against one wall of the room. Rodney
will help fit her for one. Books on breast cancer survival line the
shelves of the three other walls. Rodney will introduce her to their
contents. When that is done, Rodney will refer her to one of the best
oncologists in the area. At the end of a 12-hour day talking to numerous
women, Rodney has a 24-hour hotline for women recently diagnosed with
breast cancer forwarded to her home in Lawrenceville.
As director of the Princeton YWCA’s Breast Cancer Resource Center,
and chair of New Jersey’s Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Race for the
Cure, Jane Rodney is one of the most visible advocates for breast
cancer awareness today. "We still don’t know what causes breast
cancer," says Rodney, "but we want to spread the word that
early detection may save lives." She leads the center’s corps
of 150 volunteers on a non-stop campaign that reaches hospitals, community
centers, churches, and schools throughout the state.
While her tireless volunteerism for cancer research and awareness
has earned her numerous plaudits, including a Senate proclamation
honoring her work on behalf of New Jersey’s women, it is Rodney’s
extraordinary ability to guide and comfort hundreds of women, either
recently diagnosed or living with breast cancer, that has made her
such an inspiring figure. As part of its mission to keep the community
informed of the latest developments in the prevention and treatment
of cancer, the Princeton BCRC hosts an annual seminar in conjunction
with a leading research institute. This year’s seminar, "Breast
Cancer: Facing the New Millennium," cosponsored by the University
of Pennsylvania Cancer Center, will be Friday, May 7, from 8 a.m.
to 3:30 p.m. at the Princeton Marriott Forrestal Village. For $35
reservations, including continental breakfast and lunch, call 609-252-2003
or 609-497-2100 or 215-349-8380.
Last month’s publication of five international studies on high-dose
chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant will no doubt be a major part
of the discussion. "Every community in the nation needs a breast
cancer resource center to help women through the whole spectrum of
the disease," says Rodney. "From the point of diagnosis, to
end of life issues, whatever happens — we have programs and support
groups to help you through every single phase, and we also really
promote breast health."
One of Rodney’s clients, Katherine Vines, was 64 years old when she
was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent mastectomy. Shortly
after surgery, in August of 1993, she received a rather unusual follow-up
call. Rodney asked her if she would be interested in joining a support
group for women recovering from surgery. "There was so much hope
in her voice," Vines recalls, "that for the first time, I
felt I wasn’t alone."
Rodney understands women like Vines better, perhaps, than any doctor
can. She herself is a breast cancer survivor. In August of 1988, Rodney
was the president of her own business, J. Rogers Associates, a national
search firm for optical physicists. By October of that same year,
she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. After double mastectomy
and chemotherapy treatment — during which time she resigned from
her job — Rodney’s cancer appeared to be in remission. Rodney
knew, however, that because the disease had spread to her lymph nodes,
there were no guarantees. In 1996, Rodney was diagnosed with uterine
cancer and, a year later, the breast cancer recurred. "When a
woman with cancer calls me," she says, "I can almost fit myself
into any point in their life and say that I’ve been there."
With her bobbed red hair and huge girlish smile, it’s hard to imagine
Rodney any way but healthy. There are no outward traces of the stem
cell transplant she received in 1998; no indication that she has endured
the ravaging effects of chemotherapy over and over. She is sturdy,
vibrant, and energetic. When asked how she perseveres in the face
of a deadly disease, Rodney responds with Zen-like humor. "I was
terminal the day I was born," she says. "I decided not to
focus on when I am going to die, but how well I am going to live."
Rodney lives very well. She and her husband (Burton "Bud"
Rodney, a patent attorney at Bristol-Myers Squibb and a marathon runner)
spend much time with their three children and five grandchildren,
all of whom live close by. She draws constant support and inspiration
from her own family, as well as the extended family of women she has
been able to help each year. "When you give, you get a lot more,"
she says. That, she believes, has enabled her to continue her work.
"Some people wouldn’t be able to deal with it professionally,
but I have gotten so much that has sustained me and helped me get
Her father was a prominent surgeon, active in community affairs in
Detroit, and her mother was a world traveler as an advocate for education
in less developed countries. She inherited their organizational skills:
"I like to put things together and run them and get people to
work together," says Rodney. "When I was eight, I had all
the girls on the street in a club, the Warrington Girls. No one was
allowed to be president but me. I was president for life."
She spent her teenage and college years working in the
emergency room of a community hospital. "If I had been born 10
years later, I would have been a physician," she says, "but
I didn’t see a lot of women in the field during the ’50s." Instead,
she graduated from the University of Michigan, Class of 1962, and
went on to teach children with special needs, take courses for a master’s
in clinical psychology, lead Weight Watcher training courses, and
be a perennial volunteer.
Rodney’s life took a dramatic turn in 1976, when her father was diagnosed
with both lung and breast cancer. She left her job to take care of
her father. "It was caring for him," she says, "that got
me through the mourning."
Her ability to transform a great loss into an even greater hope would
give her the strength to face both the loss of her brother and mother
to cancer in the following years. Despite her family history, and
in spite of her depth of knowledge about cancer, Rodney was still
unprepared for her own diagnosis in 1988. "I probably didn’t think
it was going to happen to me," she says. "No matter how much
cancer there is in your family, a defense mechanism goes up."
Shortly after a double mastectomy and six months of chemotherapy,
Rodney joined the Princeton YWCA’s Breast Cancer Resource Center,
redirecting her life towards fighting the disease and helping other
women do the same. "I made my father, mother, and brother feel
better," she says, "so I thought maybe I could do it with
Then housed in the Princeton YWCA building on Paul Robeson Place,
the center was in its second incarnation under the hand of Ginny Hendrickson.
At its inception in 1977, Encore, as it was called, was the first
of its kind — an exercise program for women recovering from cancer
surgery. Under Hendrickson, who took over in 1985, it was expanded
to include outreach programs and given its current name. The dedication
of volunteers like Rodney enabled the program to operate on a shoe-string
budget and one-person staff.
Rodney’s first paid position at the YWCA of Princeton was as part-time
financial development director. Marge Smith, the Y’s executive director,
moved her to the BCRC because she thought it should be staffed by
someone with breast cancer. "Even though everyone’s experience
is different there is an empathy, an instant bond, from sharing a
common experience, you have a different level of credibility if you
have been there," says Smith. "Jane’s level of compassion
and the courage she has are an inspiration to others."
As director of the BCRC, Rodney saw an opportunity for the program
to grow from the inside. "I felt the program needed to be involved
from the point of diagnosis, no matter what the problem, question
or issue," she says. Before she could realize her vision for the
Center, however, she needed both a staff and a larger, more intimate
space where women could feel comfortable. "It was rather awkward
to be looking at a woman’s scar," she says, "with club music
booming from the room next door."
One of the first things Rodney did in 1990, when her
budget was under $10,000, was to put together a business plan. She
had an assistant by the end of 1991. By 1992 the center had three
people on the paid staff. This year the center has a budget of $200,000
and seven paid staff people — including assistant director Nancy
Healey, and administrative director Jeanine Miller — at a 1,700
square-foot office at Montgomery Commons. Instead of dealing with
1,000 people, the center is dealing with 18,000 people and is the
statewide headquarters for the Race for the Cure.
She added a program for young women addressing issues such as pregnancy
and dating, as well as a program for men who have partners with cancer.
"We train 40 to 50 volunteers every year to empower women to understand
how they can play a role in their wellness," says Rodney. "When
we have the foot in the door, we don’t just talk about breast cancer,
but also about pap smears, heart health, nutrition." For underserved
populations, programs are available to help with access, funds, transportation,
Rodney, herself, is the center’s greatest resource. She is meticulous
and thorough; she knows every oncologist, hospital, and medical center
in the state. She keeps informed on all the latest treatment methods,
the best exercise routines and diets for those recovering, and the
various organizations that provide support for women with cancer.
When giving referrals, Rodney never ever makes a medical comment.
"But I give anecdotal comments that are positive, such as the
patients are happy with how they were treated, or they liked the environment,
or whatever it might be." If she has negative information about
a doctor she simply does not mention that person’s name.
If a woman needs to decide whether to have the controversial stem
cell (bone marrow) transplant, Rodney helps her think it through,
bearing in mind that last year she had to make the same difficult
decision. The treatment involves harvesting your own bone marrow or
blood cells before undergoing very large doses of chemotherapy and
replacing those cells with the ones stored. Recently published results
suggest that this procedure does not statistically improve one’s chances
for survival. Rodney’s considered reply: That other studies have come
up with different results and that more research needs to be done.
In fact, she detects a silver lining even in this discouraging research
cloud. Now that the extreme treatment has been shown to be not obviously
better, more women may consent to participate in blind studies. Until
now many women have vied for the extreme option, assuming more intensive
chemotherapy must be better. Now, says Rodney, "we should have
more people willing to go in and compare them both."
If a woman facing a transplant is afraid of the dangerous parts of
this treatment (and some don’t survive it), Rodney has been there
too. Using the maxim "Don’t act like a victim and people won’t
treat you like one," Rodney does not readily disclose the details
of her own unusually harrowing experience with that procedure. But
she does warn that the whole idea of stem cell transplant "is
very frightening. You accept this. You know that you put yourself
for a short period of time in harm’s way."
She, too, was frightened, but her doctors reassured her: "We haven’t
lost one person and we don’t plan for you to be the first one."
Her case, in fact, turned out to be one of the more scary ones. She
had an undetected staph infection that surfaced during her treatment
and turned a 17-day hospital stay into 34 days. Only partly aware
of how critical her condition was, Rodney continued to give her strength
to others. "There were people in the hospital at the time she
was sick who were looking to her for guidance," says Roger Strair,
the head of the transplant team at the Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
"She handled it with dignity, but she was a patient and we had
to try to keep her a patient for that period of time."
Strair says that the treatment was particularly rough
course for Rodney. For three weeks she was in critical condition and
going downhill daily. "We saw her courage and strength when she
was confronted with very severe medical problems associated with her
treatment," says Strair.
In Rodney’s words: "I got so sick. I was very, very ill. Antibiotics
weren’t working. We didn’t know where the staph infection had come
from. We didn’t know anything."
Under so much medication, Rodney was unaware of what was going on.
Only later did she find out that "my whole family was terrified.
But they didn’t share that with me. They came in and said you’re going
to be OK. They didn’t want to make their fear my fear. They said,
`We know you can fight,’ and I did.
When Rodney finally saw herself in the mirror for the first time after
the transplant, she could hardly recognize herself. "I didn’t
know it was me. I had gained an enormous amount of weight. I was bald.
My face was round, my eyes were red, my pallor was a different color.
I looked like one of the people from the Munster family, only worse."
How she survived this trauma is an object lesson: "The bottom
line is, I really trusted my doctors and the nursing was incredible.
The trust — I never let go of my trust. Even in the darkest moment
I knew I was going to get through it."
That dark moment was only a few months ago, and Jane Rodney now looks
as if she is in the peak of health. In fact, she laughs, people have
been asking her whether she had a face lift. But she faces another
enormous challenge, her eighth season as volunteer chairperson of
the statewide Race for the Cure in October, a job she does in addition
to being director of the BCRC. Just chairing the race is a stupendous
effort and no one has come forward to take her place.
"We have looked for years to find someone, and nobody wants to
take on that kind of an effort. I am a little sicker now, the disease
has proceeded into the lung," says Rodney. "I am trying to
find people that can take over the helm. It scares people. It is not
like anything else."
Last year’s race brought in $600,000, and this year she expects to
do $800,000. Yes, she agrees, the race could raise more money with
a paid administrator, and that step is planned for next year. "We
are looking to be a million dollar race for the Year 2000."
Raising hundreds of thousands of dollars means putting many, many
hours in work, something that has not gone unnoticed by those closest
to Rodney. "My husband yells and screams. My doc is also yelling
and screaming a bit."
But not too loudly. Michael J. Kane, one of Rodney’s doctors who is
also director of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey at Hamilton and
a board member of the BCRC, doesn’t view Rodney’s hyper-active work
life as a threat to treatment. "I am a pretty fervent believer
that there is a lot more to treating a chronic illness than just giving
medication," he says. "To have an activity that gives you
a strong sense of self worth and community involvement — I can’t
measure it, but the patients that do best are those who stay involved
and active as vibrant members of the community, and Jane personifies
that. As long as anyone has the strength and stamina to contribute
to the community, and it is not interfering with medical care, they
should do that."
"Jane puts in long hours, but I don’t think she looks at the BCRC
as work," says Kane, who terms the BCRC "a one of a kind resource."
He says that from his perspective (he moved his practice from Philadelphia
to Central New Jersey eight years ago) that the BCRC has done more
to educate and encourage patients with cancer diagnoses than any other
"Quite frankly," says Kane, "I think it is Jane Rodney’s
vision that has brought the BCRC where it is today. In her own inimitable
way, Jane — as she does everything — really took this far
beyond what it had been. It is a gem. This is something Jane is giving
back to society."
As chair of the Race for the Cure Rodney raised enough money last
year to deliver 42 grants to hospitals, cancer organizations, and
institutions in New Jersey. She also received the "Everyday Hero"
award from the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship. Last year
her volunteer efforts were honored by the Komen Foundation with the
"Jill Ireland" award.
"I love people. I truly love humanity," Rodney says. "When
I reach out and help someone the feeling is so good inside of my own
self that I end up getting as much as I am giving. Every time I reach
out and help someone else it helps me just as much. Jill Ireland was
my role model for her bravery. In the last stages of her disease,
she was trying to reach out to the public to inspire women to get
mammograms," says Rodney.
Her other role model was her father. "All of his life my father
had a smile on his face, a great joie de vivre," says Rodney.
"He found so many delightful things in the life and nature around
us. He’d say, `Let’s just take two minutes and look at the wildflowers.’
When he died in 1976, my brother and sister and I discovered that
he had made each one of us feel important and special, and that we
were the most important one to him. What could be better than that
each kid thought that!"
Despite her battle, Rodney has been able to maintain her own sense
of purpose and convey that hope to others. "I actually know many
more women who are living with breast cancer, diagnosed several years
ago, who are still around, than women who have died from breast cancer.
"What I tell women," she says, "is that you never knew when
you were going to die before, and you never do. So you’re going to
enjoy the day and enjoy your life."
Katherine Vines, now a 70-year-old widow living in a retirement community,
has decided she is going to make the most of her life, and she thanks
Jane for that. She recently took a trip to England, and is now heading
off to Australia. "Jane is so positive," she says, "that
it’s contagious. I made up my mind that it wasn’t the end of the world
and there are still a lot of things to do. I’m not going to put things
— Melinda Sherwood
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