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Cancer survivor raises money for research


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Cancer survivor raises money for research, supports patients

By Pilar Ulibarri De Rivera

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Elaine Axelband sells squares. Not to make a living, but to make a difference.

Axelband raises money for cancer research by selling white fabric squares, so that they can be decorated with words and photos to honor or memorialize a loved one affected by the disease. Money from the sale of each $25 square goes to the University of Miami Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, where Axelband got a second shot at life years ago.

Brian Lehmann/The Post


Elaine Axelband is stitching together a 'Cancer Wall of Honor' made of fabric squares (background) decorated to honor people whose lives have been affected by the disease. Axelband is a lung cancer survivor. The Wall of Honor was inspired by her oncologist, who died of cancer.

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The 73-year-old, suburban Delray Beach resident remembers sitting across from her doctor in January 1996 after being misdiagnosed with an allergy to a tree that didn't even grow in Florida.

"He said, 'You have lung cancer, period,''" Axelband said. "When you hear that word, you put a death sentence on it."

But the doctors at the cancer center changed her mind.

"When I walked into the hospital, they said, 'Welcome to Sylvester, let me have your body,''" she recalled.

Axelband surrendered and went through two "absolutely devastating" rounds of chemotherapy until her lung tumor shrank to the size of a thumbnail, she said.

Then came surgery to remove the tumor, and 35 rounds of radiation treatment.

Crucial to her survival were her husband of 56 years, Norman, who never left her bedside, day or night, and her oncologist, Dr. Kasi Sridhar, who encouraged her to use her knack for talking to people to lend support to cancer patients.

"I get many, many phone calls from people who are diagnosed with cancer," said Axelband, who gets calls from patients through a referral system and the Sylvester cancer center.

"I tell them it's not a death sentence anymore," she said. "Go to a cancer hospital where they do research and give yourself a fighting chance."

Axelband said Sridhar helped her fight her disease. The last time she saw him, he was giving her her five-year check-up.

She didn't know he had cancer. "He was such a dedicated doctor," she said. "He would work all day long in the clinic and hook himself up to chemo at night."

Sridhar died two weeks later and became Axelband's inspiration to start the "Cancer Wall of Honor," which she is making with the squares of fabric.

Axelband raises money for the cancer center through the Papanicolaou Corps for Cancer Research.

Also known as Pap Corps, the all-volunteer South Florida organization has close to 17,000 members and has raised more than $30 million since 1952. Axelband is president of the Gold Coast Cancer Research Unit, one of 46 Pap Corps chapters.

Axelband, who has a bachelor's degree in general education from Brooklyn College, worked for 20 years at a fabric store. She used her experience with patterns and colors to come up with her fund-raising idea.

Five years ago, she put the word "survivor" on an appliqué rose, the Pap Corps emblem, and her name on a 13-by-13-inch fabric square and showed it to the organization's executive board. They liked the idea, so she started selling the squares.

Once she has 32 squares, she sews them together and backs the whole thing with another fabric to create a section of the Cancer Wall of Honor. She hopes to find a permanent home for the wall, possibly at Pap Corps headquarters in Deerfield Beach, she said.

The mother of two daughters now has more than 100 squares and has raised at least $2,500. She's finishing her third wall section, which has been pinned together and spread out on her dining room table.

"I'll look at it when I walk by and keep rearranging the pieces until I am satisfied with their placement," said Axelband, who sometimes works on the sections until 3 a.m. "When you look at it, it's emotional. Every square is different, some are very sophisticated and some are done with crayons.

"One lady told me it looks like a child did hers, and I told her it has a big smiley face with the sun shining and it says 'I'm alive.'

"What could be more beautiful?"

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