THIS STATEN ISLANDER FIRST BEAT CANCER, THEN HELPED UNITE TWO ORGANIZATIONS TO BUILD THE BOROUGH’S ONLY COMPREHENSIVE BREAST CENTER
BY JESSICA JONES GORMAN • PHOTOS © AMESSÉ PHOTOGRAPHY
Twelve years ago, at the young age of 40, Christine Zall was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I went for a regular mammogram screening at Staten Island University Hospital, and Dr. Carolyn Raia, the radiologist, gave me the sad news that I needed to see a surgeon and oncologist,” Zall said. “It was devastating; my sons were only 6 and 9 years old.” She immediately called SIUH to schedule various appointments, but was told she would have to wait weeks. So, in the meantime, Zall reluctantly traveled to Manhattan to begin her surgery and therapy.
“I received two opinions at two highly regarded institutions,” Zall said. “Both told me I was very lucky that the radiologist who read my report found this cancer. I have dense breasts, and had it not been found as early as it was, the cancer could have quickly spread.”
A few months after her diagnosis, Zall received a call from SIUH’s patient navigator, Maureen Caccesse.
“She was following up, calling to see what had happened and if I had sought treatment,” Zall said. “I explained how difficult it was navigating the system that there wasn’t a central place in Staten Island for diagnosis and treatment, and that I wasn’t able to get an appointment quickly enough despite numerous attempts. She listened and promised to keep in touch.”
While in the midst of treatment, motivated by her own struggles to stay well, Zall began involving herself in raising money for breast cancer research and therapy.”
“Through my husband’s relationships, I started volunteering with a small family charity called the Florina Rusi Marke Cancer Foundation,” Zall said. “Florina passed at an early age from complications of breast and ovarian cancer that spread rapidly. She left behind a husband and three small sons, as well as three brothers. In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘That could have been me.’ So I donated time to their annual golf outing every year.”
As the foundation grew and the Staten Island family met its main goal of building a free cancer clinic in their hometown in Macedonia, they were left with a sizable sum, which they wanted to donate to another worthy cause. At one of the foundation’s annual wrap up meetings, Zall suggested that since the family now lived in Staten Island, they donate to SIUH. She even came up with a tagline: “Bringing hope around the world.”
“They were afraid it wasn’t enough to make an impact, but I called Maureen Caccesse. She, in turn, put me in touch with John Demoleas and Paula McEvoy, who at the time was running the Nalitt Center, where most cancer patients received their chemo treatments,” Zall said. “The Rusi Marke Cancer Foundation donated the money, which was allocated to renovate a small room in the chemo center. There was instant chemistry between all the amazing people at SIUH and the Rusi Markes. I felt like the ultimate matchmaker.”
The Rusi Marke family invited Zall to be on their board, naming her lead events manager. A bond between the Rusi Marke Foundation and SIUH was formed. Together the organizations started planning the construction of a facility that would fill the borough’s void of all inclusive care. The Florina Rusi Marke Comprehensive Breast Center officially opened in 2018.
“It was everything I knew a breast cancer patient needed,” Zall said. “A beautiful calming space with access to the best network of doctors and treatments, all in one centralized location. The center includes a wig shop and boutique, and utilizes the generous assistance of so many wonderful people I had come in contact with over the years. The imaging center was sponsored and named for Virginia Gruppuso a woman I’d had the privilege of meeting several years before.”
Now, more than a decade after her own diagnosis, Zall is cancer free, but the legacy she has left behind for other cancer patients in this borough still resonates daily.
“It’s been 12 years and I can honestly say I feel like everyone at this institution that I have come in contact with is like family,” Zall said. “Basically, I’m just a puzzle maker. I helped put these two institutions together. I will continue to advocate for both, but especially for SIUH, because as a community member, I think it’s so important to support the places where we live that can help support us in a time of a medical emergency.”
Zall, who lives in Annadale, worked in publishing for years. She currently serves as the community business development manager at Barnes & Noble in New Springville.
“I like to say I have been lucky to have lived many lives,” she said. “As a young girl, I worked as a babysitter and an au pair, which is when I fell in love with working with children. After graduating from St. John’s University with a B.S. in communications, I landed a temp job with Crown Publishing, where I was fortunate enough to work for a powerhouse in the literary industry, the late Arlene Friedman. She fostered my career and then offered me a job at The Literary Guild.”
Zall stayed home to raise her children, freelancing as a copywriter and building a direct sales business as an independent consultant with Pampered Chef which markets kitchen tools, food products, and cookbooks for more than 18 years.
“I found a deep love of cooking and met so many wonderful people in the process,” she said. “When my children entered school I became heavily involved, volunteering my time to schools especially the PTA at P.S. 36 and I.S. 7, and then Tottenville High School and LaGuardia High School, which they both attended along with many other charitable organizations.”
Zall took the job at Barnes & Noble three months ago because the position seemed the perfect combination of all her talents. “It was a position that connected several parts of my life,” she explained. “Early in my career, I worked for several publishers, and while I was home with my kids, I became involved with a local organization called Readers are Leaders in addition to raising funds as part of the PTA for a schoolwide effort to support the Book of the Month. My new role as community business development manager marries all this into one position, along with my love of books and reading.”
At Barnes & Noble, Zall’s role is to build sales and ensure customer loyalty through institutional sales, working with schools, libraries, and nonprofit literacy and arts organizations assisting each organization in finding the right products to use in their educational setting and helping set up in store book fairs. She also serves as a liaison to the community, alerting Staten Islanders about the company’s book club, author readings, and other events.
“There’s just something about meeting people face to face and putting books into their hands that makes it a very rewarding experience,” she said.
This year, Zall will celebrate her 25th wedding anniversary with her husband, Brian.
“I am so thankful to have a husband who is a great father, a hard worker, and supports everything I do,” she said, making sure to credit her spouse for his own philanthropic work. He currently serves on the board of the Staten Island JCC and Kids for Kids, a charitable organization that helps support children with medical challenges. “Beyond everything else, my greatest joys in life are my two sons, Jacob and Gabriel.”
And Zall, along with the Florina Rusi Marke Cancer Foundation, is still assisting SIUH.
“A year ago, after fulfilling our commitment to the Florina Rusi Marke Comprehensive Breast Center, the charity pledged an additional $2.5 million to help build a brand new Comprehensive Cancer Center at Staten Island University Hospital, dedicated to Florina,” she said. “It’s basically a great addition to the comprehensive breast center, and now all cancer services will be housed in one magnificent facility. This is a wonderful commitment to our community.”
For Zall, who loves the beach, everything Disney related, rooting for the Mets, sunshine, and spending time with her family her work with the hospital is the embodiment of her father’s favorite line.
“He always said, ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’ I think that’s exactly what I’ve done.”
Florina Rusi Marke Cancer Foundation
104 22nd Street, Brooklyn / 718.439.1200