By Andrew Wroblewski
Sheila and Howard Blechner have been married for nearly 32 years. The couple has enjoyed a great life, Howard said. But in October 2010, that life took a major change. With no warning signs, Sheila she was diagnosed with an incurable case of small lymphocytic lymphoma.
While the diagnosis took its toll, the Blechner family – the Dix Hills couple has two children – fought it together and Sheila’s cancer went into remission in April 2011. The ongoing threat lingers, however, and the bout has given the family the inspiration to help others who have gone through the same experience or who may in the future.
Through the nonprofit Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, under the team name “Sheila’s Avengers,” the family has raised $26,000 for cancer research and raised awareness for blood cancers, such as SLL, which is a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Sheila’s Avenger’s next event is coming up in East Northport on July 16 from 11 a.m.-11 p.m. During that time, patrons to the restaurant can have 20 percent of their bills donated to the society by presenting a flyer that will be available on the Sheila’s Avengers Facebook page: facebook.com/sheilasavengers.
“[LLS] gave Sheila and our family a place where we could really feel comfortable – where we felt like we were really doing something,” Howard said of the society, which funds lifesaving blood cancer research around the world and provides free information and support services. “At times, we’ve felt powerless going up against this disease, but volunteering for LLS makes us feel like we’re really contributing to find a cure.”
Their efforts have also garnered the support of Suffolk Legislator Steve Stern (D-Huntington), who has attended several events hosted by Sheila’s Avengers, including a fundraiser this past Saturday at the Perennial Gardner in Dix Hills.
“I am proud to join with Sheila and Howard Blechner to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the fight against blood cancers,” Stern said in a statement. “We all know people who have been impacted by cancer and Sheila’s story of survival and dedication to helping others is an inspiration to our entire community.”
Though her cancer has been in remission for four years now, SLL is a chronic condition and must be monitored thoroughly by Sheila’s physicians. According to the Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program, SLL is a virtually identical cancer to that of chronic lymphocytic leukemia, which is caused by the overproduction of abnormal white blood cells. As of press time on Monday, SEER estimated that there have been 14,620 new CLL cases in 2015 and that 4,650 people have succumbed to it.
But Sheila, alongside her family, keeps fighting. She keeps telling her story and she keeps giving back.
“When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade – or limoncello,” she said jokingly. “But it’s as simple as I don’t want to die; I’m not ready to die. I have a family that I love, a husband I adore and I intend to be around for them.”
The campaign has also included walking in the LLS’ annual Suffolk “Light the Night Walk,” which will be held this year at the Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip on Oct. 24. The 2014 walk saw Sheila’s Avengers as the top fundraising team on Long Island.
“That was such a phenomenal, inspiring evening,” Sheila said. “It really touched off something with me. You realize that you’re not alone and that there are so many people going through what you’re going through. You feel like you’re a part of a community.
The Blechner family’s efforts have also extended to Washington, D.C. There, in May 2014, Howard and Sheila traveled to lobby for legislation that would make it easier for cancer patients to have access to life-saving medications, the Patients' Access to Treatments Act.
“Right now some patients are trying to decide between feeding their families or paying for medication,” Sheila said of her reasoning behind supporting the proposed act. “I don’t want anyone to go through this alone. I don’t want anybody to go through this period.”
Through all of this, Sheila has continued working as a clerk for the Dix Hills branch of the Half Hollow Hills Library. For more information on Sheila’s Avengers, including how to participate in a fundraising raffle for a 2015 BMW M Series Cruise Bike, visit bit.ly/1C3ckWC.