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JoAnn Ensign, Worked for Cancer Cure

Raising her children was lawyer's priority

(SJ Mercury News 12/20/96)

When an observant stranger on a Paris subway prevented a pick-pocket from separating Bill Lewis from his wallet last spring, JoAnn Ensign simply retrieved the cash and passports from it and said to her husband: "OK, Bill, I'm in charge."

JoAnn Ensign was nothing if not decisive, said her friend Linda Romley-Irvine, and that was typical of the way she handled her life in the nine years she held breast cancer at bay before her death Monday.

After she learned of her disease in 1987, she quit practicing law, took virtually every step available against her affliction, setup a foundation to support basic scientific research against breast cancer and crammed a lifetime into the rearing of her three children.

Lifetime of Achievement

"As a woman, she really was an icon for other women," Romley-Irvine said. "It was not just her heroic battle with cancer, but…she accomplished in a short amount of time what will take the rest of us a very long time."

JoAnn Ensign had prepared for her 44 years with a childhood in Chicago, Graduation from Hinsdale Central High School, and study at Scripps College in Pomona before completing her undergraduate work at Stanford in 1974.

She met Harvard prelaw student William C. Lewis at a wedding, and "we fell madly in love that first night," he said. They married in 1972 and completed their education together at Hastings College of Law in 1977.

They practiced separately, working for others, until he joined her family law practice to create Ensign & Lewis in Palo Alto, in 1982.

"Part of her practice was mediation," Lewis said. "But she was a very contentious, strong advocate for her clients, and she represented both men and women. She was extremely outgoing, very direct, extremely honest, what you see is what you get."

Seed Money for research

Direct is the way she approached the fundraising for her foundation, which has accumulated more than $200,000, Lewis said, with $90,000 in grants ready to be awarded for several research projects. The Ensign & Lewis Foundation seeks to provide seed money for researchers, who normally must have a preliminary funding to qualify for the larger grants given by such donors as the National Institutes of Health.

One of the grants the couple's foundation made was to Mary-Claire King, the University of California-Berkeley scientist who discovered BRAC1, the only gene linked to breast cancer.

About three years ago JoAnn Ensign encouraged Dr. Ellen Mahoney and Jill Freidenrich in the establishment of the Community Breast Health Project. Their efforts were complementary, Mahoney and Freidenrich said, the project supporting women through the experience and Ms. Ensign's foundation trying to put a stop to the disease.

"I want to find the cause, and I want to find the cure," Ms. Ensign had said simply in a 1993 interview.

That was after first cancer occurrence – treated by surgery, months of chemotherapy and radiation and the second five years later, which required five months of experimental bone marrow transplants. She had a third episode in 1994 and a fourth in 1995, with treatment that included Taxol, the drug from the ewe tree.

She remained active until late in August, when she became ill and spent 40 days hospitalized in October and November. Ms. Ensign went home for the last time Nov. 12.

Renewal of faith

JoAnn Ensign, born a Mormon, took faith seriously during her last nine years, her husband said. "She really became deeply converted at the time of her diagnosis," he said. "She needed to be humbled, and got humbled and got religion."

She also focused her efforts on Jennie, 15, David, 13, and Joey, 11. "They're great kids,' he said. "Straight A students and good athletes. She did and incredible job, a real force in their lives."

Three years ago, JoAnn Ensign told Mercury News reporter Melinda Sacks, "I'm not afraid of dying."

"I'm thankful for the six years I've had (since diagnosis)," she said. "My little guy was 2 then. Now he's (almost) 8. But I don't want to die."

JoAnn Ensign may have found her peace, her husband said. "The children are wonderful, and her grief at leaving them seemed to go away," he said. "Her work is done; she fulfilled her purpose. She has three strong, bright kids."