Herb Zaretsky

The American Cancer Society’s annual Great American Smokeout takes place on November 19 this year. The national event started in 1977, a few years before Herb Zaretsky, an expert in rehabilitative medicine who lives in Old Bethpage, began volunteering for the society. Zaretsky, 71, is now President of the Board of Directors in the society’s Eastern Division, covering New York and New Jersey. A retired administrator at the Rusk Institute of New York University’s Langone Medical Center, he remains a professor at the NYU School of Medicine—and an avid golfer. A native of Brooklyn with a PhD in psychology from Adelphi University, he moved to Long Island 40 years ago with his wife Diane. They have two children and three grandchildren. Like many other volunteers, he has a personal connection to the disease.

Tell me about the Great American Smokeout.
It encourages smokers to quit for this one day and it helps to raise the consciousness of the public. If you smoke, call the American Cancer Society quit line, at 1 (800) 227-2345, and you will be able to speak with a trained counselor and get free, confidential counseling. That number is available 24 hours, 7 days a week.

How successful has the event been?
Since its inception in 2000, the quit line has provided counseling support to more than 380,000 smokers. The rate of smoking has gone down. Still, unfortunately, we have almost 20 percent of teenagers smoking. We’re working on it very hard.

What brought you to the society?
In 1980, my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at a very young age, and within six months she passed away. It was a major trauma. She was a wonderful, giving, selfless person. When she passed, in her memory, I started volunteering with the American Cancer Society, to stop this terrible disease once and for all. The memory of my mom just stays very vivid in my mind, and I feel that some place she’s smiling at the work I’m doing to try to rid the world of this dreaded disease.

What can people do to help prevent cancer—and what do you do?
I walk. I golf a lot, but I always walk the course. I do aerobic exercises as well. I play tennis. I try to keep myself in very good shape and I’m getting checked on a routine basis by a physician. The most important things are to exercise three or four times a week, at least half an hour, and to watch your diet. Eat healthy, eat fruit, reduce the amount of fat you take in. Keep your weight down and get checked up routinely. As they get past 40, men should get checked for prostate cancer. It’s recommended that once you get past 50, you have a colonoscopy at least once every few years. Women should get mammographies and the Pap test.

What did you do as a volunteer before you became a board member?
Initially I led some support groups in Nassau County for men whose wives were suffering from breast cancer or had mastectomies, or who had prostate cancer. I was involved with Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, plus fundraising events. I was a very strong advocate, with the Nassau County Legislature, to set up clean air legislation. We were very successful in raising the tobacco tax.

What has the American Cancer Society accomplished on Long Island?
Last year, we offered programs of support to more than 4,400 diagnosed patients. That includes Road to Recovery, where volunteers drive people to treatments, and our Look Good Feel Better program, where we provide wigs, prosthetic devices and free makeup kits and skin care kits. We also began a patient navigation program at Nassau County Medical Center. We were able to support about 320 patients. A navigator gets the patient through the whole system of diagnosis and treatment and insurance. We’re in the second year of our New York City Hope Lodge program. Our lodge provides 61 hotel-type rooms for any outpatients seeking cancer treatment in New York City, and it’s free. We’ve had well over 100 patients from Long Island stay at the lodge, with a caregiver. We encourage people to look it up on the website [cancer.org], because it’s a wonderful program.

How has the economy impacted your fundraising?
We’re doing significantly better than other divisions around the country. We’re down 3 to 4 percent from last year, but some other divisions are down 10 to 20 percent. In 2008, we raised over $1 million in New York and New Jersey, which is a terrific number.

Why is it better here?
We have longtime dedicated volunteers. The large gifts from corporations are down. But here, it’s more about the $25 and $50 gifts. We’re the king of the small gifts.

Do you think cancer can be cured?
I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think so. Everything I’ve seen, in terms of research, the increase in survivorship, the fact that it’s becoming more a chronic disease rather than a death sentence, gives me encouragement that we’re finding a cure. I absolutely, passionately believe that.

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.