TORONTO — When Marvelle Koffler was diagnosed with breast cancer 15 years ago, she was sent to Princess Margaret Hospital, where she recalls sitting in a “dark basement area.”
From left, Tiana Koffler Boyman, Anna, Marvelle and Theo Koffler were honoured by Mount Sinai Hospital.
That experience – along with a talk she heard by Evelyn Lauder, who had just founded the Evelyn Lauder Breast Center at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center – served as the catalyst for her to found a warm, inviting centre specializing in breast health and breast care at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.
The Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre, which opened in 1995 and now serves 33,000 patients a year, was designed to help women who have breast cancer move forward with their lives, both emotionally and physically, in the best way possible, Koffler said in a joint interview with her daughters Theo Koffler and Tiana Koffler Boyman.
On Sept. 22, the three women, along with Marvelle’s daughter-in-law Anna Koffler, were honoured jointly by the Mount Sinai Hospital Auxiliary at its Living Legacy Endowment Fund luncheon, an event held every four years.
The fund generates interest for specific hospital-related projects, and this year’s beneficiary was the breast centre, which opened in 1995.
Anna, who had to miss the joint interview and spoke separately to The CJN by phone, said that “environment plays a key role in people’s therapy and getting better.”
Of the four women, Anna is most directly involved with Mount Sinai, having served on various boards there for more than 20 years. In addition to fundraising for a variety of other organizations, she and her husband also funded the Tom and Anna Koffler Tolerance Training Centre at the Toronto offices of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Anna credited her own mother with sparking her interest in Mount Sinai and said that Marvelle has been “a great role model” for her in terms of giving back to the community.
“I consider fundraising my full-time work,” Anna said.
The breast centre was the first of its kind in Canada, offering an array of services such as yoga, multilingual resource literature, nutritional counselling, coffee and tea served by volunteers, and support for male partners, Marvelle said.
It also serves male breast cancer patients, a small and sometimes overlooked population.
“Men may feel something and not associate it with breast cancer,” Marvelle said. “Some of them think it will go away, and when they wait too long, they, too, die. For men, it can come up as a little blister on their nipple.”
Recalling an early visit to the New York centre with her husband Murray and several Mount Sinai staff members, Marvelle said that Lauder had done “what I would have loved to have done.
“She created this atmosphere where you sink into lovely chairs. People are there to say hello. Their volunteers are special. They’re trained to see if anyone is in such a state that they need an arm around them, or if someone is weeping in a corner, they try to bring them through it, or call in [a medical professional].”
Theo, who lives in San Francisco, said that from an early age, she recalls her parents – who support culture, health and education-related charities – saying that it’s more important to give than to receive. She added that their philosophy has been passed down to their five children and 16 grandchildren.
Theo’s philanthropic focus – her two “passions,” she said – are therapeutic riding for the disabled, which she was instrumental in establishing in Israel in the 1990s, and her year-old non-profit, called Between Four Eyes.
The organization teaches mindful awareness in communities affected by conflict, including Rwanda, the Palestinian territories and Jordan. Its rationale is that inner peace will play a role in living peacefully.
Tiana, who is president of the Koffler Centre of the Arts, has chaired three women’s golf tournaments that benefited Mount Sinai, and she has served on a patient and family advisory committee for the centre. She calls her mother the centre’s “guiding light.”
Likewise, she said that her parents’ example has motivated her to become involved in the community and focus on projects that will become “lasting legacies.”
Marvelle’s own entrée into community work was the result of being asked by a family friend as a newlywed in 1951 to establish a “brides’ group” for Hadassah-WIZO. “That was my first taste of getting involved in an organization.”
She went on to become involved at high levels with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and the Weizmann Institute.
These days, Marvelle said, she is “backing off” from all but a very few involvements. She said that younger leaders “have to have room to lead, and room to breathe.”