Jeanne Rizzo: Connecting to the indomitable spirit, Part I

Believe. No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted island, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.
– Helen Keller, American author, political activist, and lecturer

Jeanne Rizzo, RN, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund (photo credit: Irene Young).

Jeanne Rizzo (photo credit: Irene Young).

I first heard Jeanne Rizzo, RN, president and CEO of the Breast Cancer Fund, speak at the San Francisco premiere of the 2013-2014 LUNAFEST film festival in September 2013. She approached the podium on crutches and in her introduction announced that she had pushed back her knee replacement surgery in order to attend the premiere. Jeanne shared with us the responses she received from women when she explained that she had hurt her knee while playing beach Frisbee. The older group of women winced and asked why she had put herself at risk, while the younger generation wanted to know: Did she catch it? Yes, she, indeed, caught the Frisbee. “I had a moment in the air that felt great,” Jeanne shared. “I connected to the indomitable spirit.” That story resonated with me as much as the wonderful short films that were shown that evening.

Taking risks, savoring joyful moments
Jeanne, who turns 69 this year, noted that in her era women’s options of what they could be were severely limited. However, despite growing up poor, she was the first one in her Italian immigrant family to go to college, she related to me in an interview in February. While the previous generation of women and her own followed a predictable life trajectory, Jeanne developed an attitude of doing what she wanted and challenging people who threw up barriers and told her she couldn’t do it. This attitude served her well when she and her partner at the time opened up the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in the 1970s. “I thought, ‘Well, why not? Why not us? Why can’t we do this?'” she said matter-of-factly. In her eyes, the excitement of trying something new outweighed the risks, and the worst thing that could happen was losing money on a failed venture. “I’m willing to take intellectual, emotional, and social justice risks,” she declared. “I think it’s critical that we stand up and step out.”

Jeanne and San Francisco jazz and blues critic Phil Elwood at the Windham Hill Festival, Greek Theater, Sept. 11, 1983.

Jeanne and San Francisco jazz and blues critic Phil Elwood at the Windham Hill Festival, Greek Theater, Sept. 11, 1983.

Also critical, according to Jeanne, is being attuned and recognizing something special through one’s passion or compassion, and acting on that recognition. In the early 1970s, a guy on a bicycle refused to leave the Great American Music Hall box office until he had a chance to speak with Jeanne, who was responsible for booking concerts at the venue. After he talked his way on-stage for a brief audition and “blew her away” with his singing, she booked him for a gig and agreed to his request for a 100 percent advance on the spot. “I remember going back in and saying, ‘I just spoke to a guy who I don’t know and I gave him his full fee in advance. I have no idea what his phone number is or where he lives or whether he’’s going to come back on his bicycle or not,'” she said, and laughed. But, she added, “There was joy in that. There was joy in being right on, recognizing something special and being willing to be there with it. That was one of the most joyful moments for me.” Oh, and the singer? Jeanne revealed that it was none other than Bobby McFerrin.

We’re all in this together
Jeanne thrives on seeing the best of herself in a situation like that or seeing the best in someone else. And she has that opportunity to bear witness time and again with her colleagues at the Breast Cancer Fund (1388 Sutter St., Suite 400, San Francisco, CA 94109-5400, 866.760.8223), whose groundbreaking work and mission is to “prevent breast cancer by eliminating our exposure to the toxic chemicals and radiation linked to the disease.” Any team – be it a production crew for a concert or film or staff at an emergency room or hospital – requires different skills to come together and achieve goals. “There are people who are better than you at every single element of the work,” Jeanne said. “You want people around you who are going to bring something – that spirit – that’s going to make the whole greater.”

Jeanne speaks, with her wife Pali Cooper and CA Senator Dianne Feinstein by her side.

Jeanne speaks, with her wife, Pali Cooper, and CA Senator Dianne Feinstein by her side.

The same holds true for women who go through the journey of overcoming breast cancer, according to Jeanne. After the diagnosis, these women have to turn the corner, so to speak, and find the will to be able to turn the corner. In order to do so, they need to surround themselves with a team that will help them imagine health and wellness. “If you could be one of the people there for them in that moment, why wouldn’t you be?” Jeanne posed, and then repeated, “Why wouldn’t you be?” While Jeanne is not a breast cancer survivor, she understands what “coming close to the edge” feels like as a survivor of a head-on collision with a drunk driver on the Golden Gate Bridge in 1987 and then as a long-term rehab patient. “I know what it’s like to bring yourself back,” she confided.

The Prevention movement: ‘Start with one thing’
Jeanne pointed out that, tragically, women under 40 who are diagnosed with breast cancer have a much higher mortality rate than women diagnosed over the age of 40. These young women are much more vocal, righteous, and impatient, Jeanne has observed, which may be in part generationally driven. “But the thing that gives me hope is that you can worry about survival,” she said. Women can be concerned about every aspect – survival, treatment, access to care, preventing a recurrence, and the legacy of daughters and granddaughters and the next generation of women – because they are not mutually exclusive. “You don’t have to say, ‘Well, I can’t really think about preventing it because I already have it.’ I know more and more women with breast cancer who are very concerned about prevention,” Jeanne said. “It’s their own health and wellness in preventing a recurrence or them not wanting this to happen to one more woman.”

Jeanne and Gwen Coleman, PhD, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Jeanne and Gwen Collman, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, at the Breast Cancer Fund Heroes Celebration.

When I asked Jeanne what one piece of advice she would give to a woman regarding breast cancer prevention, she prefaced her response by acknowledging that there are so many things that can be done. That said, Jeanne entreated: “Start with one thing. Don’t try to take it all on. Just find something you’re passionate about.” Be conscious about whatever the greatest exposure might be and find that one thing. For example, if you live in an agricultural region where pesticides are sprayed, that one thing might be only buying and eating organic food or establishing a community garden. A mother with young children might get rid of toys in the house that are made with toxic chemicals or drive a campaign to eliminate toxic chemicals in the playground equipment at her children’s school or the local park. A woman may research whether her cosmetics have cancer-causing chemicals and opt for safer products or establish a social media campaign with friends to bring awareness to what chemicals they are unknowingly putting on their faces or their bodies.

“Do that one thing that you can feel good about so that you’re not overwhelmed and paralyzed,” Jeanne said. “If every woman contributes one bit of her energy to one element or one aspect of the toxic exposures that we have, we will have a movement.” People need to voice their concerns and raise questions about, for example, whether their children really need the X-ray that the doctor is ordering. “I can’t say, ‘Don’t microwave plastic and that’s enough.’ I can’t,” Jeanne insisted. But what she can say and does say, is: “Be conscious, be conscious, be conscious.”

Jeanne and her wife Pali Cooper - being 'unassailable.'

Jeanne and her wife, Pali Cooper – being ‘unassailable.’

Being ‘unassailable’
While we were on the subject of proffering advice, I asked Jeanne what she has gleaned from her very full life that she could share with us women. “Self-reflection,” she promptly answered. “Being willing to understand yourself and really being authentic about who you are and who you want to be in your family and your community, and being fully there.” For example, don’t box or stifle yourself by thinking you have to do something or be someone because you’re of a certain age or because it’s the fashionable thing to do. She also called for being open to the possibilities that what is authentic for you today may evolve down the road into something else that may be more compelling for you to become. “Listen to yourself; really pay attention to yourself,” she stressed. “If you stand in your authentic self, you will be in the world a better person. You’ll be a more honest and true person, and you’ll be unassailable. You’ll be unassailable.”

Postscript: Part II of my interview with Jeanne will be posted on Wednesday, March 4th. Jeanne will be an honored guest at the VIP event hosted by the LUNAFEST East Bay Committee on March 21st at 6:00pm, 638 Clayton Avenue, El Cerrito. Following the reception, the LUNAFEST film festival will be shown at 7:30pm at the El Cerrito High School Performing Arts Center, at 540 Ashbury Avenue, one block up from the VIP event. Jeanne will open the festival with the welcome and will be available to meet after the screening. Come visit with her at either event. You can purchase tickets (for the VIP event/film festival or just the film festival) here or contact me directly.