Walkers at the North Fork Breast Health Coalition's 5K event in 2019. File photo: Denise Civiletti

The North Fork Breast Health Coalition is celebrating its 25th annual 5K walk for breast cancer awareness next Sunday at Tanger Outlets.

Ahead of the 25-year anniversary of the event, Ann Cotten-DeGrasse, who co-founded the NFBHC with her husband Antonio DeGrasse, reflected on the organization’s achievements and history in an interview this week.

The couple founded the North Fork Breast Health Coalition in 1998, after Ann twice had a scare with breast exams that required her to get biopsies. The lumps turned out to be benign, but she and her husband were both troubled by the lack of support for North Fork breast cancer patients and survivors.

They spoke with the South Fork Breast Health Coalition and decided to form a similar organization for North fork residents.

They received $1,000 to get started from Riverhead Rotary, of which Antonio was a member, and organized the initial board.

The conversation that made the yearly 5K walk possible in the first place happened by chance.

While they were having dinner at the Cooperage Inn, Antonio spotted then-Tanger General Manager Janine Nebons. The three struck up a conversation, and the couple suggested that Tanger sponsor a breast cancer awareness event. By coincidence, Nebons was looking for a breast cancer organization to sponsor. The first 5K walk was held later that year.

Since then, the NFBHC has held true to its founding goals:“helping people financially and emotionally,” Cotten-DeGrasse said.

The NFBHC gives $1,000, no-questions-asked grants to breast cancer patients. It also offers services like free wigs and scarves, as well as activities like yoga and massage therapy. For students, it offers college scholarships to breast cancer survivors and patients, as well as their families.

In addition to the annual 5K, the organization also hosts a yearly fundraising gala, dubbed the “Pink Pearl Gala” to honor the memory of NFBHC’s late past president Pearl Philindas.

Antonio DeGrasse died in 2016, and Ann Cotten-DeGrasse has since stepped back from her leadership role, but the organization is going as strong as it ever was.

Cotten-DeGrasse is pleased with the longevity and strength of the organization. Initially, she said, “I figured it would eventually just melt into the woodwork, to tell you the truth.”

In a phone interview, she praised the coalition’s new leadership.

“That Melanie McEvoy,” Cotten-DeGrasse said, referring to the organization’s current president. “She’s taken the breast cancer coalition to new heights.”

She was proud of the group’s achievements. “So many people have come back to… express their gratitude,” Cotten-DeGrasse said. “Not just for the money, but for the support they received.”

Despite stepping back from her leadership role, Cotten-DeGrasse has remained a presence at NFBHC events. She said she’s been more scarce than normal for medical reasons and because she recently moved, but that she tries “to help out in any way that I can.”

When asked for perspective on 25 years of advocacy, Cotten-DeGrasse said straightforwardly “time flies.”

Cotten-DeGrasse said that it is important current leadership “keep [its] eye on the ball,” citing the importance of ensuring comfort for breast cancer patients, survivors and their families.

“I can’t believe it’s been 25 years. It feels like it was maybe five,” Cotten-DeGrasse said.

Janice Young, a current NFBHC board member and breast cancer patient, spoke about the organization’s services and the community it fosters.

Young described the various classes and group activities, like yoga and strength for life classes. These are all provided free of charge to breast cancer patients and survivors, but for Young, the classes themselves are not the most important part.

“It’s the camaraderie, you know?” Young said.

Young talked about how the services are designed to specifically accommodate people who are undergoing cancer treatment, making them less physically taxing on the body.

While discussing these services, Young stressed the sense of solidarity between the members. They “build each other up,” she said. “It just kind of happens naturally.”

“We certainly made a lot of progress in 25 years,” Young said, reflecting on the NFBHC’s history. She has been involved with the group since its inception, back in 1998.

“It’s been very encouraging,” Young said.

Walkers can register for the Sept. 24 event online here or on the day of the event from 7:30 to 8:45 a.m. Registration is $35 per person.

The opening ceremony takes place at 8:45 a.m. and the walk steps off at 9 a.m., following the ceremony.

Each year the event draws some 200-300 walkers, participating as individuals and teams, who walk the 5K on the sidewalks of the Riverhead outlet center prior to its opening. The event also features raffles and giveaways.

For more information about the North Fork Breast Health Coalition, visit the organization’s website.

Editor’s note: RiverheadLOCAL is a sponsor of the NFBHC’s annual 5K walk.

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