Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

Ellen Melvin preaches breast cancer awareness

Ellen Melvin preaches breast cancer awareness

MILWAUKEE -- Elsie Schultz was diagnosed with breast cancer on her 62nd birthday -- Aug. 24, 1990. Six months later, she was gone.

Now, two decades later, her daughter is campaigning for funds and awareness for a disease that the American Cancer Society says will afflict more than 225,000 American women in 2012. Ellen Melvin, wife of the longtime Brewers' general manager, Doug Melvin, has spent the past five years doing her small part to keep that number from growing.

"It's 21 years now that my mom is gone," Ellen Melvin said. "She was caring, loving, my best friend. But what we've gotten out of it, my sister and I, is early detection is so important. That's why Doug and I felt it would be good to try to help support breast cancer prevention programs."

It was actually Doug Melvin's idea, Ellen said, on one of those sleepless nights so common for a GM. The next morning, he suggested that she turn her neighborhood Bunko group into something of a breast cancer task force.

Ellen started with a gathering of about 30 donors in a suite at Miller Park, with food and a raffle that raised about $22,000.

"We were thrilled with that," she said.

It grew and grew. The next year, the event moved to one of the ballpark's larger party suites. Eventually, they took up two suites, and the raffles grew larger.

Now, Ellen and her daughter, Ashley, have a full-blown program in place -- the Step Up to the Plate Initiative -- with programs throughout the year that together have raised nearly $340,000 for various breast cancer organizations. Doug Melvin is involved -- the original "Pink Tie Guy" at a fundraising cocktail reception that last year featured Robin Yount.

Ellen Melvin donated $100,000 to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a leading breast cancer charity, in 2010. Last year, she gave $50,000 to Komen and $50,000 to After Breast Cancer Diagnosis (ABCD), an organization that helps women and families cope in the difficult months following a diagnosis.

"Now, we dream big," Ellen said.

This year, Ellen and Doug Melvin, with the Brewers Community Foundation, will serve as the presenting sponsors for the Wisconsin Breast Cancer Showhouse, an event in its 15th year that raises funds for breast cancer and prostate cancer research at the Medical College of Wisconsin. A professionally-decorated mansion on Milwaukee's East Side will open for tours from June 2-17, with proceeds benefitting the cause.

Over the last 14 years, similar tours have raised $4.4 million for cancer research.

"I think Ellen has been amazing in her consistent commitment to the cause," said Cecelia Gore, the Brewers Community Foundation's executive director. "Who wants to think of their mother dying? For her to turn that into a legacy is extraordinary. She recognizes that she and Doug have a powerful voice, and we're happy to partner with them."

Her work has connected Melvin to hundreds of survivors, and many more family members of those lost. Melvin has experienced more personal pain; three years ago, her best friend Laurie Berk died at 59 after battling breast cancer for 25 years.

"She was one strong gal, I'll tell you," Melvin said.

Melvin hopes she provides strength to others.

"You know what people are going through," she said. "My mom only had three chemo treatments because she was so sick, but with my friend Laurie, I was there with her through so much more. PET scans and CAT scans and MRIs and chemo, so I'm more educated now than when my mom was diagnosed.

"I've learned you can't be afraid to call on someone for support, and you also can't be afraid to call someone [who is ill] and just tell them you are thinking about them. Sometimes, people are afraid. But a phone call -- 'Hey, I'm here' -- that matters."

Her efforts have grown dramatically since that first ladies group fundraiser, but Melvin's core message remains simple: Early detection is the key to beating breast cancer.

"When my mom was diagnosed, the disease was already so far advanced, it had already metastasized. It was already too late," Ellen Melvin said. "It happened so quick. We know first-hand with my mom; if she had been diagnosed sooner, she might still be here. We don't know."

What would Elsie Schultz think if she saw her daughter now?

"I think she would be really proud," Melvin said. "I know my dad is so proud when he sees what we're doing. If we can save one life by educating people, by preaching early detection, it's all worth it."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy.