UCSF advocate to climb Mt. Fuji to promote breast cancer research

By Leslie Harris

Two University of California, San Francisco breast cancer advocates will climb
the legendary Mt. Fuji in mid-August as part of the national Breast Cancer Fund’
s campaign to raise awareness and money for breast cancer research.

Both women, Helen Louise (H.L) Ittner and Elisa (Bambi) Schwartz, have
intensely personal reasons for wanting to make the trek up the revered,
volcanic mountain in Japan that stretches more than 12,000 feet into the sky.

Breast cancer has left a painful impression in Ittner’s life. While a young
woman in her twenties, she lost her mother to the disease after a four year
battle. Two decades later, her younger sister died from breast cancer after
struggling with it for two years. She left behind two young children. Ittner
was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995 at 59-years old. Though it was a small
tumor, she had a double mastectomy—when both of the breasts are removed-to
reduce the chance of a recurrence.

She is determined to make it to the top of Mt. Fuji. Ittner, who is a patient
at UCSF said, “I have so many people who are supporting me and who have
contributed to this cause. I know one should not feel failure for not getting
to the top, but I have got to get to the top! I don’t care if I’m the last one.
There’s just something about being at the top and being a part of that
emotional high from a group of 60 men and women. Our last ascent will start at
four in the morning and I want to be there when the sun comes up. I want to be
a part of all that.”

Schwartz was diagnosed with Stage One breast cancer in 1995. She had a
lumpectomy—when the tumor alone is removed—and radiation therapy. Her mother
was diagnosed with breast cancer at 68 years old and was a survivor for 17
years. She lived to be 86 years old and died from heart disease, as Schwartz
was going through chemotherapy. Schwartz, 61, hopes this climb will facilitate
an eventual end to breast cancer, which kills thousands of women in the U.S.
each year.

Her family is filled with females. “I have three daughters and four
granddaughters and I really would like to think that I will not have to visit
them in the hospital because they have breast cancer,” she said. “Maybe by the
time my granddaughters are grown, the disease will have been eradicated.”

The Mt. Fuji climb is The Breast Cancer Fund’s third major mountain expedition
devoted to increasing awareness and raising money for breast cancer. In
partnership with the Japanese Organizing Committee, The Breast Cancer Fund’s
Climb Against the Odds- Mt Fuji 2000 will bring together 55 climbers from
around the U.S. The team includes breast cancer physicians, scientists,
survivors and their families, activists and others. A Japanese team of about
150 climbers will join the U.S. group on their journey to the mountain’s summit
starting August 20.

Other climbs by the group took place on Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua in 1995 and
Mt. McKinley in Alaska in 1998. The Breast Cancer Fund is a national nonprofit
organization based in San Francisco dedicated to ending breast cancer through
research, action and policy initiatives.

Neither Schwartz nor Ittner has experience in mountain climbing. But they are
training hard for their adventure. Schwartz is a self-described couch potato.
When she received the letter asking her to be a member of the team, something
tugged at her, she said. She didn’t throw the letter away and later Andrea
Martin, founder of The Breast Cancer Fund, talked her into it while both were
attending a breast cancer symposium at UCSF last year. She didn’t need much

“In the back of my mind, I knew it was something I’d like to try. I wanted it
to be a celebration of the fact that I had just completed five years of living
cancer free,” she said. “It’s a personal challenge to be able to accomplish
something I thought I would never be able to do or even be interested in.”

Also, Mt. Fuji itself made her want to participate in the expedition. “There
was just something about Mt. Fuji,” Schwartz said, who had visited Japan 32
years ago. “Maybe it’s the spirituality of it. It’s such a beautiful mountain.
Something about it stuck in my mind.”

Her desire got her off the couch and on her feet to start training by walking
regularly. But first she had to buy some tennis shoes. “I didn’t have any kind
of sport shoes,” she said.

Schwartz walks everywhere now, including around hilly West Marin and up and
down sections of the Lyon Street steps in San Francisco and to weekly research
meetings at the UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center. “I’ve gotten so I can walk
pretty well, but I’m still not so good on steep walks,” she said. “I definitely
huff and puff.  I hope to make it to the top. But I just want to do the best I

A college friend who had participated in The Breast Cancer Fund’s first climb
convinced Ittner to head to Japan. “I thought if my friends know I ‘m doing
this and share this information with their friends, it will have a ripple
effect and hopefully encourage women to take care of themselves and make sure
they take good care of their health,” she said.

Ittner had a recurrence in January 1999. She found a tiny lump in the same spot
where her previous tumor had been. The lump was removed and she’s doing fine

“I’m doing great. To think that I will climb to 12, 388 feet is amazing,” she
said. “Of course it will be a challenge, but a great accomplishment.  I’m the
second to oldest person on the U.S. team going on this trip.” She turned 65
years old in June. “I feel very blessed,” she said. “After all, my mom only
lived to 56 and my sister only lived to 45.”

Ittner also is using the Lyon Street steps to train. She joined a gym and did a
ten mile hike in cross-country ski territory in Michigan where she is
originally from and spends vacation time during the summer. Ittner and Schwartz
will head to Lake Tahoe soon to practice climbing at higher altitudes. “I’m
just trying to do things regularly,” Ittner said. “I’m in much better shape now
than I was before I started training. That’s a wonderful by product. It’s

Climbers will be transported to 8,000 feet up the mountain, spend the night
there and then climb to the summit the next morning as part of the two day
hike. Participants had to raise at least $5,000 to take part in the climb. They
also had to pay their own way. Half of the money each person raised will go the
Breast Cancer Fund and the rest can go to any breast cancer organization or
research institute they choose. Bambi and H.L. both raised more than $30,000

Ittner said she will carry a book of names with her to the top of Mt. Fuji. She
asked everyone who contributed to her fundraising efforts if they wanted to use
their donation to honor the memory of a loved one who had died from the disease
or to honor a breast cancer survivor. “A number of people responded to that,”
she said. “All of those names in the book are going to the top with me. So in
essence, everyone is climbing to the top of Mount Fuji with me.”

Breast cancer is the second leading cancer related death in women, following
lung cancer. The American Cancer Society predicts more than 180,000 new cases
of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed this year and 40,000 women will die
from the disease. Chances of developing breast cancer increase if a woman has a
family history of the disease.

Schwartz and Ittner have been breast cancer advocates for several years,
working along side UCSF researchers to improve clinical trial enrollment and to
enhance patient care. They are also active volunteers in their communities.
Among other activities, Schwartz sits on the UCSF Committee for Human Research,
which reviews all research protocols to ensure patient protection. She also
established a peer support program at California Pacific Medical Center between
breast cancer survivors and hospitalized breast cancer patients. Ittner has
served terms on the Moraga School Board, Hospice of Contra Costa County and the
Hearst Castle Preservation Foundation.

The Breast Cancer Fund is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to
end breast cancer through research, action and policy initiatives that support
(1) replacement of mammography with safer, more reliable screening methods; (2)
development of non-toxic treatments; (3) identification and elimination of
preventable causes of the disease, including those in the environment; and (4)
access to the best available medical care and information for everyone. The
Fund creates awareness and funding though mountain climbs and other physical
challenges, art exhibits, films, public awareness campaigns, conferences,
educational materials and advocacy efforts.

For further information about The Breast Cancer Fund’s Climb Against the Odds -
Mt. Fuji 2000, please contact Claudette Silver, Mt. Fuji Project Coordinator,
at 415-543-2979 X 14, or via e-mail at [email protected].