Ellen Blaufarb grew up in a vibrant neighborhood that consisted of a single apartment building in New York.
“Our apartment house was our community. You knew your neighbors, and you were part of each other’s lives. The richness of that is palpable,” says the retired principal.
That childhood experience shaped her professional and personal life. “I like building a sense of community. It’s important to me. I tried to keep that going at Mills. … It’s all about community and warmth and caring,” says Ellen, who was the school’s principal until her retirement in 2004. The building now houses the Benicia Community Center.
After retirement, Ellen and business partner Giovanna Sensi-Isolani opened Benicia Knitting Circle. That partnership ended after five years, and Ellen went on to work as a counselor at Liberty High School and on the city’s Human Services Board.
Life changed in other ways during that time as well: Ellen was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004 and again in 2006. Her husband, retired Vallejo educator Marshall Blaufarb, died while snorkeling in the Caribbean in 2008.
Now, at age 73, Ellen finds herself building community in different ways as she mentors five students at Liberty High School, serves as vice president of the social club at Rancho Benicia, writes a column every other week for the Benicia Herald, meets with Merrill Garden residents once a month, knits, swims, and plays mahjong, bocce ball and online games with friends.
“It’s kind of amusing to me. I’m doing the things my mother did and that I looked askance at—I’m knitting and playing a lot of mahjong.”
What did you think you’d be doing at this stage of life? When I retired, I just couldn’t think of myself as not working. Work has always been very important to me. …
I guess because I was always so busy that when Marshall died, I continued at that pace. I led this adrenaline-filled life. If I was asked to go anywhere, I said yes. I went and went and went. It wasn’t until I got here (her home in Rancho Benicia) a year ago that I found some peace. I don’t want to be going all the time now.
Did I know when I retired that I’d ever slow down? No. The best thing in my day is I go swimming. I go every day.
I had no idea that I would ever be content to do mahjong, knitting and swimming. I’m at a time where I’m accepting life as it is, and it’s good.
You’ve written about having breast cancer twice. Why did you decide to be so open about this? I’m trying to write about things that might be helpful, especially to Baby Boomers who are coming up and looking at who’s done this or that and been successful. So I wrote about having breast cancer and about being a widow. As a widow, you ask yourself, “What are you going to look forward to?”
What do you look forward to? I try to have something special to do every day—something I can look forward to. My mahjong group, my knitting group who comes here. My life is full of women—the men are leaving and the women are left on their own.
How was your cancer diagnosed? Both were detected with a mammogram. Go in for your mammogram! It’s still state of the art for detecting cancer.
They found the first breast cancer in 2004, just as I was retiring. It was stage 1A. I asked Marshall why no one was bringing dinners or any of the things I thought people did when someone had cancer, and he said, “Ellen, you’re treating it like a pimple.” Well, I was. I had stage 1A. … But I did have cancer, a growth about the size of a peanut.
The second one was a separate cancer in the other breast. With the second one, I got very upset. I kept asking, “Am I going to keep having cancers?”
My doctor in Vallejo said, “If so, we’ll cut it out again.”
I wasn’t satisfied with that, so I went for a second opinion in Southern California. She said the same thing.
I was monitored every six months for the first five years for both of them, and now I’m monitored once a year.
What treatment options did you choose? I chose to have a lumpectomy and radiation. I had radiation at the Walnut Creek Cancer Center the first time, and the oncologist said, “You’re not going to die of breast cancer.”
The second time, I went through the same treatment except I had radiation at Queen of the Valley in Napa. I also took Tamoxifen for the second one.
What would you say to someone recently diagnosed with breast cancer? I personally made the decision to do the least invasive procedures—I’m not Angelina Jolie.
It has to be your personal choice. I wouldn’t go immediately to thinking that you’re going to die. Every case is very different. You have to consider what stage you are at and do your research, because you have to decide for yourself what treatment to choose.
What lessons did you learn from having breast cancer? The most important lesson is that you are mortal, and we all die at some point. It was the first time I realized that. I’m good at denial. Death was going to be a long way off. It turns out I’m not going to be someone who got through scott-free, even though I’ve had my privileged life. …
More and more of us who are older are saying if we get cancer, well, we will really consider whether to do chemotherapy or not because we’ve seen what it does. Do you want to go through that and be sick, sick, sick—or accept the fact that you are on the path to the end of your life? One friend said, “I won’t use all of my financial resources if I’m terminal.” Your quality of life is diminished and you may buy a just month or two.
We’re the only ones who can say, “Hey, I’m terminal. OK, it’s time to go.”
What makes you happy? The swimming is the thing. I went for a blood pressure check recently and it was a little high, so the nurse said to think of something that is calming to me. I thought of being in the pool with the palm trees swaying, and my blood pressure went right back down.
What challenges you? The computer! My grandson tried to teach me Minecraft. He was able to learn mahjong so I wanted to learn Minecraft because it’s a game he enjoys. You have to have dexterity because you’re doing this thing with your left hand and you’re doing this other thing with your right hand. He was so patient. He said he’d do the right-hand part for me, and it still wasn’t working. So he said, “Maybe this isn’t for you.”
What’s next for you? I’ve been looking for next. There’s a part of me that still puts myself out there. I put myself out there for the school board and that didn’t happen. …
There’s a part of me that knows my energy level is not what it once was, but my desire to serve is still there. So I’m letting it unfold, but I’m still putting myself out there.
***October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month