S.F. Woman conquers peaks, valleys in her fight against breast cancer

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Andrea Martin wasn't supposed to live long enough to see her daughter being called to the Torah, let alone to have the strength to climb one of the highest mountains in the Western Hemisphere.

Six years ago, after being diagnosed with an advanced stage of breast cancer, Martin was told she had little chance of surviving another five years and should go home and put her affairs in order.

But recently, as she sat in San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom crying throughout her daughter Mather's bat mitzvah reading, Martin marveled over the fact that, despite the discovery of a tumor "the size of a golf ball," the doctors were all wrong.

"The service was an extremely moving experience…hard even to express," recalled Martin, glancing out the window of her office at The Breast Cancer Fund, where she spends at least 12 hours a day.

Martin, 48, is the founder and president of the national nonprofit organization, established three years ago and based in San Francisco. Last February, Martin, along with 16 other breast cancer survivors aged 22 to 61, conquered the 22,835-foot Argentine mountain Aconcagua, the highest peak outside of the Himalayas.

She recently shared slides and spoke about her climb and her fight against breast cancer at the Women's Business and Professional Leadership Forum of the Marin section of the Women's Alliance of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

The climb sought to raise $2.3 million ($100 for every foot of the mountain) for breast cancer research, as well as to offer hope to the 1.8 million women in the United States diagnosed with the disease, she said.

With help from an array of individual and corporate sponsors, said Martin, "We are now at 70 percent [of] our financial goal."

Describing the climb, she said that despite driving winds and harsh terrain, three women managed to reach the mountain's summit. The others, herself included, climbed to base camps from 13,800 to 21,000 feet. Accompanying them, she added, were doctors, mountain guides and a PBS documentary film crew.

It may be hard to imagine Martin, a petite woman with shoulder length hair, strapping on a backpack and assaulting a mountain few would dare climb. But after "extensive training" she did just that.

"Before going on the expedition, I had never hiked, camped, or slept in a tent," said Martin.

Although she has spoken with many groups about her ordeal, she welcomed the opportunity to meet Jewish women. "There's that great sense of connection that comes from sharing a common heritage," she said.

Event co-chair Susan Wolfe, a fund-raising consultant for the Breast Cancer Fund, brought Martin to speak to the Jewish women, whose group sponsors activities on topics from finance to health care while raising money for the JCF's annual campaign.

These days, Martin can relate to fund-raising. Since scaling Aconcagua, she and her fellow climbers, armed with photos and compelling stories, have appeared at speaking engagements, sporting events and fund-raisers across the United States to increase public knowledge about the disease and appeal for help to reach their $2.3 million goal.

Wolfe voiced confidence that the team will succeed. "Andrea Martin may come in a petite package, but she's a real powerhouse," Wolfe said.

Last May, the team accepted an invitation from First Lady Hillary Clinton to visit the White House when she announced her Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign of Medicare Coverage for Mammograms. The team also met Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, herself a breast cancer survivor, to enlist her support in the battle against breast cancer.

"I am selfishly motivated. I do it for my daughter. I want to eradicate breast cancer in her lifetime," said Martin, who called the disease the leading cause of death for women in her age group.

"Breast cancer has more than doubled among all American women over the past 30 years. One out of eight of us can expect to develop breast cancer in our lifetime. In the Bay Area, and among Ashkenazi Jews, that rate is even higher."

Ultimately, Martin hopes that Jewish women will unite in the struggle to fight breast cancer. Encouraged by her speaking engagement at the JCF, she said she would like to see more Jewish organizations make breast cancer awareness a priority.

"My work is punctuated almost daily by news of the loss of another friend or acquaintance to breast cancer," she said. "The sadness only drives me harder."