Smoking and crying. It was 40 years ago, but Geri Barish distinctly remembers the smoking and crying. Trapped in a jail cell of a room—wretched unrest permeating the space—she would impatiently wait for answers. The worst kind of answers—even good news meant your child still had cancer.
The smoking and crying took place in a hospital waiting room as Barish’s son, Michael, was being treated for what would eventually be diagnosed as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. “I used to sit in this room everyday and look at the parents, smoking and crying, smoking and crying. Because that’s what you did. You were so afraid that your child was going to die. You were so afraid and we knew nothing.”
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The smoking room was just one stop in the Bermuda Triangle of sick rooms that made up Barish’s daily schedule as she dealt with illnesses on all fronts. “My father at the time had a stroke and so my son was in the hospital, my mother [suffering from breast cancer] was in Oceanside and my father was in Long Beach. I used to go to LIJ to South Nassau to Long Beach everyday.”
Exhausted and desperate, things changed for Barish when (against her wishes) doctors informed 13-year-old Michael that he had cancer. “He didn’t know at the time and I remember saying to the doctor, ‘Don’t tell him, my husband and I want to be the ones to tell him.’ I remember walking into the room. He just started screaming, ‘What did I do wrong? You’re my mother, you’re supposed to make it go away.’ I remember saying, ‘You didn’t do anything wrong but we will find out why you got it and how.’”
Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Nassau County, a stone’s throw from the Rockaways, sits a white colonial house in the town of Hewlett. Surrounding the property, a white picket stands at attention, while flower gardens scatter the greens. But looks are deceiving. Although the appearance of the house conjures images of a picturesque existence—this house has stories to tell, starting first with the woman you meet upon walking through the door.
To say Geri Barish’s disposition is misleading is an understatement. Her warmth belies a lifetime of tragedy; her gentle demeanor masks an undying fortitude.
Michael’s diagnosis began Barish’s crusade to become more informed, a journey that would become a lifelong pursuit. “I couldn’t sit there anymore. I needed to know how he got this disease. I didn’t even know what it was…This is what made me a fighter and demand help and it didn’t matter whether you were a scientist or the president or who you were. We needed answers. This was our kid’s life.” She spent years doing whatever she could to learn about the disease that was slowly taking her son. “I started talking to other parents. I remember calling up the [National Cancer Institute]. I was clueless. I had no idea what I was doing or who I was talking to. I was grasping at straws. They said, ‘Can you send the work into us? We would be happy to look at it.’ I started to learn and sit there and take notes.”
In 1986, Barish was diagnosed with breast cancer. Shortly after, Michael passed away at age 25, 12 years after initially becoming sick. A year later, cancer was found in Barish’s breast again. The diagnosis, coupled with her son’s recent passing, reignited Barish’s fight against the disease and to learn as much as possible.
Four years after her initial diagnosis, the State Health Department issued a study on breast cancer on Long Island, concluding that high socioeconomic status, diet and a large population of Jewish women were factors causing a high rate of breast cancer in the region. This did not sit well with many women, Barish included, who found it difficult to believe that their religion or the digits in their bank account in any way affected their susceptibility to being diagnosed with breast cancer. “Two school teachers from Wantagh, Fran Kritchek and Marie Quinn, got together and said, ‘We need to get a new study, there is something wrong here.’”
That meeting was the beginning of The Long Island Breast Cancer Coalition, entitled 1 in 9 after the national statistic that one in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. Now president, Barish has been there all along, most notably fighting for the group’s cause at every level of government. “I remember people saying breast cancer is not a political issue. But you know what? It is all a political issue. [Politicians] are the people you have to go to if you want to change a law or if you need money or you need things to go on. You have to fight for your rights.” By reaching politicians, Barish and 1 in 9 were able to secure funding for an additional study, which cited environmental toxins and carcinogens as a possible cause. Since then, the group proceeded on a path of outreach, education and environmental advocacy that continues to this day.
Armed with a lifetime of knowledge and experience, Barish shifted her focus to patient outreach when 1 in 9 opened the Hewlett House in 2001, a non-profit community learning resource center open to patients of all cancers. Like its leader, the humble abode is more than meets the eye. The Hewlett House is home to a litany of services for cancer patients, from wigs for chemotherapy patients to legal advice for those securing their future. But more, it’s a place people can go to feel human again. “It is a home. It’s one-on-one. There are things that you can do and say in a home environment that you can’t outside or in a hospital. There are people that come in that don’t know where to go and what to do or how to feel. They want to shed their sorrows and they are able to really laugh and be honest.”
More than just a haven for patients, the house is a beacon of community. It survives solely on donations and volunteerism. Students from Hewlett High School—located just across the street—hold fundraisers while the local cab company drives patients to and from, free of charge. Everyone gives what they can, together covering the needs anyone might require. “We change to the needs of the people. There are people who volunteer their time here. We have an oncology nurse who runs a program for OBGYN problems. We have a woman who comes in once a year and she fits all of our patients for eyeglasses and gives them a card for a free eye exam. We have a retired farmer who comes and tends to the garden so everyone has fresh vegetables.”
Barish has seen more than her fair share of loss revolving her life around an often-terminal disease for more than 40 years. Yet she is still very much a fighter, a fighter against cancer, stigma, despair, fatigue and death. “I am not going to give up. I do it for Michael. He would never give up. I have another son, Eric. When Michael was in a coma, the doctor said, ‘We really need to turn off these machines.’ Eric turned to me and said, ‘You can’t, Michael always came back.’ It isn’t about the pat on the back. It is about love and hope. We have had our share of funerals, we have had our share of sorrows. But we need to keep hope. We have come so far.”