Lighting up the Seaport with love and hope

BY Ellen Keohane

Lee Leshen said he remembers seeing his mother Joanne dancing as his band, the Hotcakes, played at Arlene’s Grocery in the Lower East Side last summer.

“We thought everything was fine,” Leshen said. He said his mom told him not to kiss her because she had a cold. A few days later, when he talked to her on the phone, Leshen noticed she had difficulty breathing.

A day later, she entered the hospital. At first, they thought she had pneumonia, Leshen said. “We got another call and the doctor said, ‘It’s not pneumonia. The fluid in her lungs is leukemic fluid,’” he said. Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia on June 17, 2009, his mother died nine days later at the age of 61, he said.

In memory of his mother, Leshen along with family and friends will participate in the Manhattan Light the Night Walk for the second year in a row on October 14, a fundraising event for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The walk route will span from Fulton Street to the midpoint of the Brooklyn Bridge and back. It will end at City Hall Park.

“It was so quick that my brother and I were in such shock,” said Leshen, a 32-year-old West Village resident who works in brand partnership marketing, of his mother’s passing. After her death, Leshen said he discovered the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

“It really helped with the grieving process,” he said of meeting people who had similar experiences. “These people knew the vocabulary. They knew the language. It was very comforting. It was very cathartic.”

“From the perspective of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the need is critical and the importance of this walk is extremely critical. Someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer every four minutes and every ten minutes, somebody loses their life,” said Michele Przypyszny, executive director of New York City chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. “Leukemia alone causes more deaths than any other cancer among children and young adults under the age of 20.”

“This will be the 11th year that the walk takes place at the Seaport,” Przypyszny said. The walk is called “Light the Night” because participants carry illuminated red, white and gold balloons, she explained. The red balloons are for caregivers and friends of those living with the blood cancer, the white balloons are for those surviving or currently in treatment and the gold ones are in memoriam for those who lost their lives to a blood cancer, she said.

In 2009, 6,400 people participated in the Manhattan walk, according to Przypyszny. This year, she expects 7,500.

“The more money raised, the more money can go into finding a cure for blood cancers,” Przypyszny said. “Locally, the money goes to support education programs and support groups as well as patient aid to ease the financial burden of cancer treatment.”

There is no registration fee, although there is a $100 fundraising minimum, except for patients and survivors. Light the Night Walks take place in communities across the U.S. and Canada from September to November.

With the help of friends and family, including his brother, Craig, Leshen raised more than $6,000 last year for the society.

“Her friends came out in droves. Everyone was donating,” he said.

This year, Leshen is on the executive leadership committee of the New York City chapter of Light the Night and his goal is significantly larger. So far, he has raised more than $13,000, which includes a $7,500 corporate donation from the Mannix family supermarkets, he said.

“I think of her every second of every day. We can do something that’s tied to her and helping fight and eventually cure this disease is something pretty special,” Leshen said.

Leshen said he knows if his mother found herself in his position, she would do the same. “She was just one of those people who would just give and give and give. Do you know the Shel Silverstein book, The Giving Tree? That was my Mom.”

For more info visit www.lightthenight.org/nyc.