Payback Time

Payback Time

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Payback Time

Joy can be real only if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.

Leo Tolstoy

When I was told I had breast cancer, I never dreamed I would live long enough to write about it thirty-six years later. In my case, my doctor wasn’t optimistic even if I had a mastectomy. The news was devastating, of course. I was forty-three and still had a lot of living to do. How could I handle it? How would my friends and family handle it? Should I even tell anyone? And if I did, could I tolerate their uncomfortable expressions of sympathy and clumsy attempts to comfort me with words like, “I know you’ll be just fine”?

And every time I saw people whispering, I was sure they were whispering about “poor Lee.” For one year, five years or whatever time I had left, I did not want to spend it being pathetic! I never needed sympathy before. I was raised with love, humor and optimism in an upper-middle-class family, and was fortunate enough to have two careers of my own choosing. In the first, the music business, I was an advance publicist and agent for name bands such as Tommy Dorsey and Ray Anthony. My second career was in advertising.

Now I was challenged to put my creative skills to work in the most important campaign of my life. I realized it was up to me, and only me, to set the stage so everyone could be at relative ease with my situation. I knew that moods are contagious. By conveying that I was optimistic and upbeat, my attitude could permeate to those around me. It worked. No longer did people tiptoe around the subject of my surgery.

After my mastectomy, I recovered quickly and actually went to a Falcons/Steelers football game six days after surgery, then to work the day after that. The more I came back to the real world after the “worry world,” the more I realized I had a debt to pay for my life.

I made sure I had regular mammograms, and five years later I needed another mastectomy. The test had caught the problem early, and my prognosis was excellent.

I contacted our local American Cancer Society (ACS) to find out how I could help. They suggested I go door-to-door in my apartment building to solicit contributions. I discovered that the previous year the “grand” sum of twenty-seven dollars was collected from 120 apartments.

Certainly, there had to be a more fruitful way!

By the grace of God and a few glasses of wine with friends, I was able to think of a much better way to raise money for the ACS. I went door-to-door inviting my neighbors to a cocktail party at my apartment. The minimum contribution was five dollars. I added, “I’ll gladly accept more.”

Result: $325 and the beginning of my thirty-six years of benefits for the American Cancer Society. It was also the beginning of neighborhood parties throughout Atlanta— and, eventually, Georgia—these replaced the time-worn, ineffective door-to-door solicitations.

After the first year, I moved to a larger condominium complex, and the parties grew. After the fourteenth year, they had gotten so large that I had to have them at the complex clubhouse that could accommodate the 300 or more people who attended.

Among the hors d’oeuvres I made for my first party were meatballs. Everyone loved them, so they became a tradition, and I considered them a good-luck omen. The first year I made one hundred meatballs, but as the parties grew, so did the number of balls. The following years, making them became a party unto itself. My friends would gather around the dining-room table where I had placed a thirty-pound mixture of raw meat and seasonings. As they rolled and rolled, I cooked and cooked up to 1,000 meatballs! My friends ended up with soft hands from the fat in the meat, and I ended up splattered. We had a great time!

The other food and liquor were donated. Local sports celebrities volunteered as bartenders. Musicians and entertainers offered their talents freely, and all expenses were kept to a minimum. By then, the minimum donation had grown to twenty-five dollars (I would still accept more), and everyone thought it a great bargain. The word went around Atlanta, “It’s the best deal in town . . . and the most fun!”

The affair was no longer just a neighborhood party. The crowd was well-diversified and included senators, members of Congress, and our mayor—who all showed up in election years!

After twenty-eight years of “partying” and $291,000 in Atlanta for the American Cancer Society, I moved to St. Simons Island, Georgia, where I am volunteer chairman of neighborhood parties in our county. During the eight years I’ve lived here, my parties alone have raised approximately $85,000.

Sometimes I sit back and reflect how different things would have been had I not had cancer. Well . . . the Cancer Society would have missed more than $376,000, and I would have missed all those wonderful parties and the generous people who attended them.

But most of all, I would have missed the deep appreciation of simply being alive.

Lee Scheinman

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