Jazzed up to find a cure

There's going to be a whole lot of Jazzercising going on in Niantic on Sunday afternoon, all for the cause of finding cures to breast cancer in Connecticut.

If you've heard about, or perhaps been a part of, the annual Thanksgiving morning workout in the Williams School auditorium on the Connecticut College campus for the past 14 years, it's happening almost five weeks earlier this year, at a different time and place. So much for the excuse that we have a turkey at home to roast.

In her 15th year of helping to beat breast cancer, Rosanne "Cookie" Del Biondo, energetic owner of Jazzercise Fitness Center of Niantic, hopes to raise upwards of $20,000 for the Connecticut Breast Health Initiative (CT BHI), a Connecticut-based nonprofit that contributes 100 percent of its donations to cancer research and clinical treatments of women. CT BHI was launched about 10 years ago to funnel money specifically to breast cancer research in the state.

Del Biondo's Niantic group appears to be the most active Jazzercise franchise in Connecticut raising funds for CT BHI. This will bring the total amount that her students have raised to more than $300,000, two-thirds of it for CT BHI. She also puts on the pre-race warm-up workout for participants in the initiative's biggest annual fundraiser, the traditional Mother's Day weekend Race in the Park in New Britain.

About 1 in 8 women in the United States (12 percent) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime, according to BreastCancer.org. Besides skin cancer, breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among U.S. women. In 2010, there were more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the U.S. These and related statistics are posted on the Ctbhi.org website.

Del Biondo, who grew up in Old Lyme and has been teaching Jazzercise for 18 years, first in Niantic and Waterford, says it was a private discussion in May 1997 with one of her clients, who tearfully shared that she was a breast cancer survivor. Insurance didn't cover reconstructive surgery then.

"I couldn't believe what the surgeons had done to her," says Del Biondo. "The images of the scars are burned into my memory. I knew I had to do something."

That something has turned into years of support and interest. Even the proceeds of bottled water sales at the fitness center go to the cause. There currently are 16 members who are breast cancer survivors, ranging from six years to 10 or more of clean check-ups. One member didn't make it, succumbing to the disease about two years ago approximately two years after her diagnosis.

"What we raise goes to researchers who need seed money to get their ideas into the lab," says Del Biondo, who has become quite conversant on research efforts. "Then they can go on to seek the big money, federal grants or support from pharmaceutical companies."

The latest CT BHI grants, honored in early October, include ongoing research in cardiotoxicity by Dr. Eric Avelar, the study of osteonecrosis of the jaw in women receive bone-modifying therapies by Dr. Pam Taxel and Dr. Regina Landesberg, and a professorship for Dr. Susan Tannenbaum, all at UConn Health Center,and targeting of IGF-1 receptor and HER2 breast cancer by Dr. Michael DiGiovanna at Yale Cancer Center. A community education grant also was awarded this year to the cancer unit of St. Vincent's Medical Center in Bridgeport for a clinic for women at high risk for developing the disease. Descriptions of current and past grants are on the CT BHI website.

"We were told that one in five women in Bridgeport are expected to be diagnosed with breast cancer," Del Biondo says. "That's one of the reasons why we want 100 percent of our donations to stay in Connecticut."

The workout, which is expected to draw 100 or more exercisers and supporters, kicks off the annual silent auction of gift baskets that will culminate at the fitness center on Saturday, Dec. 1, with a raffle, refreshments and a drawing for a day at the Spa at Essex, donated by the spa.

Dancing Toward a Cure starts at 2 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 21, at Jazzercise Fitness Center of Niantic, 11-C Freedom Way; $15 donation for drop-ins and guests, refreshments will be served. Call (860) 739-5299 or go to jcls.jazzercise.com. For information about CT BHI, go to ctbhi.org, or call (860) 827-7103.

Suzanne Thompson of Old Lyme has a weekly radio show, "CT Outdoors," on WLIS 1420/Old Saybrook and WMRD 1150/Middletown and online at www.wliswmrd.net, Tues., Sat. and Sun. Reach her at suzanne.s.thompson@sbcglobal.net.

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