Bunnie's Battle

This suburban mom lost her sister and husband to colon cancer. She’s since raised millions to fight the disease.

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It may seem as though life has not been kind to Bunnie Schwartz, a Thornhill, Ontario mother of three and former elementary school teacther. In 1996 her sister passed away from colorectal cancer and, if that wasn’t bad enough, her husband died of the same disease eight years later. Both were 46 when they died. Many people would have retreated into their grief, but not Schwartz.

Rather than close herself off to friends and family, she decided, soon after her sister died, to spread the word about colon cancer. Thus began Colon Cancer Canada (CCC), founded with the double-pronged goal of giving her grief-stricken family something to fight for and, ultimately, to change the misconception that this type of cancer is an old man’s disease.

Colon cancer is the second most common cause of death among Canadian men and women – 175 people die from it per week – and, contrary to popular belief, it bears no discrimination toward race, age or gender. When caught early enough, however, it’s 90% treatable. One of the reasons why it’s not talked about as much as other cancers, says Schwartz, is that many people are embarrassed by the symptoms. “People don’t want to talk about stool or bloating,” she says. There’s another problem: Doctors don’t want to test people until they’re 50.

However, tests can be given earlier if requested. If people are made aware of the symptoms, which includes blood in the stool, unexplained weight loss and stomach cramps, they could ask for a test and potentially save their own life, she says.

“You can feel sorry for yourself, but that’s not going to help. You have to take something bad and do something good with it.”

Shortly after her sister passed away, Schwartz, along with her niece, organized around 100 family and friends for a fundraising walk. It raised an impressive $23,000. Since then, CCC has grown from a two-person grassroots campaign run out of Schwartz’s basement to a massive celebrity-backed charity that’s raised about $8 million over the years. It’s best known for its galas, such as the Anne Murray Charity Golf Classic and a high profile “Don’t Die of Embarrassment” campaign. The money she’s raised has gone toward research, public awareness campaigns, access to screening and patient support.

When asked whether all this giving has given Schwartz some much deserved solace, her response is mixed, yet hopeful: “The loneliness doesn’t go away,” she says. “You can feel sorry for yourself, but that’s not going to help anybody. My children realize that you have to take something bad and do something good with it.”

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