You could walk into the East Meadow Public Library, ask Marilyn Bunshaft a question on practically any topic and she would know the answer, her son Jess recalled.
Bunshaft has been gone for 15 years, but many still hold dear the lessons she taught them.
“We learned a lot from Marilyn,” said Jude Schanzer, the library’s director of programming. “We learned that being informed and aware is essential. We learned that being of service to others is part of what makes us complete.”
Bunshaft was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, went into remission the following year but was diagnosed again in 2002. She died two years later, at age 68.
Now her family strives to spread her wisdom by encouraging others to get tested, regularly, for all types of cancer. They joined the library last Sunday to host the 15th annual Marilyn Bunshaft Memorial Concert at the Samanea New York Market in Westbury.
The Mark Soskin Trio — Soskin on piano, Jay Anderson on bass and Anthony Pinciotti on drums — played original jazz compositions and covered classic hits by musicians like Thelonious Monk.
“It’s a good way to honor her memory and educate people about breast cancer at the same time,” Jess Bunshaft, 53, of East Meadow, said of his mother.
Marilyn, who grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, earned a master’s degree in education from Hofstra University. She married Warren Bunshaft in 1955, and two years later they moved to the house in East Meadow where Jess still lives. The family owned a drugstore in Roslyn Heights, which closed in 1995, after Marilyn’s diagnosis.
While she worked there with her husband, “she would say that Job One was raising us,” Jess said of himself and his brothers Charlie and Al. After Jess graduated from Hofstra’s School of Law in 1991, he began working at the drugstore, and his mother became the East Meadow library’s community services liaison.
Her cancer was so aggressive that she not only underwent a number of surgeries and chemotherapy, but also was treated with stem cells from her bone marrow.
A year after her first bout with breast cancer, her husband was diagnosed with lung cancer. Warren tried hiding it, because he was afraid of the financial toll it would take on his family and the emotional burden it would have on his wife. “He knew that she wouldn’t want to go through treatment if she knew he was sick,” Jess said. “He was literally coughing up blood and hiding it from her.”
Warren died in 1998. Marilyn, meanwhile, had gone into remission and believed she was cured, but her cancer came back in 2002, and it ultimately took her life.
According to the New York State Department of Health, there are roughly 1,300 cases of breast cancer per year in women in Nassau County. By comparison, there are an average of 956 cases of lung cancer, among men and women. The Health Department does not include statistics for breast cancer cases among men, but Jess Bunshaft noted that it is just as important for men to be tested.
Much progress has been made in breast cancer research and treatment since the Bunshaft family began organizing the memorial concert 14 years ago, explained Marc Head, vice president of external affairs at Mount Sinai South Nassau. Three-dimensional mammography creates a more accurate image of the breast, and allows doctors to see the density of the tissue surrounding a tumor. “It’s a really helpful tools we have when it comes to detection,” Head said. The technology was developed in 2011, and was made available at South Nassau Communities Hospital — recently renamed Mount Sinai South Nassau — two years later.
Head joined other representatives of the hospital at the concert, where they answered questions about the disease.
Among the attendees was Marilyn Bunshaft’s cousin Rita Kaikow, who survived breast cancer in 2001, three years before Marilyn died. Kaikow described Marilyn and Warren as two of the smartest people she knew. “You could ask them about anything,” she said. “They were the experts.”
Kaikow had undergone routine mammograms since she went into remission. This year she was diagnosed again, and immediately began treating it with medication. She still has the disease, but it is Stage 0, meaning that the malignant cells are non-invasive and have not spread beyond the tissue in the lining of the breast milk duct.
“That’s why it’s so important to regularly get yourself tested,” Kaikow said. “If something happens or you notice something’s off, you’re gonna catch it before it gets worse.”