New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

Our Town The newsletter that saved a life by Doug Feiden

The newsletter that saved a life

Or how a 49-page monthly bulletin for Upper East Siders helped one resident detect, deter and defeat a deadly disease.




    Kathleen Steed speaks to City Council Member Ben Kallos at his recent holiday party for constituents — about how his community newsletter gave her a new lease on life. Photo courtesy of Ben Kallos’ office

“This is one story I will not be forgetting anytime soon.”

City Council Member Ben Kallos


The 10 scariest words in the English language, Ronald Reagan used to joke, are these: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.”

Kathleen L. Steed embraces a very different world view. Officialdom, she believes, can offer comfort, company, support and holiday cheer.

And every once in a while, it can even rescue you from mortal peril.

“The word ‘miracle’ is overused and overworked,” said the 73-year-old Yorkville woman, a retired private investigator and hospital fundraiser.

“But this really is a story about a miracle,” she added.

It surfaced on Dec. 13 at the annual holiday party of Upper East Side City Council Member Ben Kallos as some 70-plus constituents mingled in his district office on East 93rd Street.

Over baked ziti from the Italian Village Pizza on First Avenue and gallons of apple cider and other nonalcoholic beverages, Steed buttonholed Josh Jamieson, the communications director for Council District 5.

“Your newsletter saved my life,” she said simply.

Jamieson said he was stunned.

Thus began a conversation between a pair of newsletter aficionados.

Jamieson has worked for Kallos for nearly three years, and his duties include writing, editing and curating most of the document, which reaches thousands of constituents online and in a hefty print edition that can range from 30 to 50 pages.

It’s so comprehensive and labor-intensive that he’s regularly on the receiving end of good-natured ribbing from Kallos and Jesse Towsen, his chief of staff, over both the newsletter’s length and its encyclopedic scope.

A recent issue, for instance, was chockablock full with listings for UES events, lectures, exhibits, book groups, support groups, writing circles, yoga workshops, dance rehearsals, ballet workshops, exercise classes, cooking classes, legal clinics, medical services and homeless services.

Not to mention the screenings of “Casablanca,” symposium about the 1830s, drag queen story hours and discussions of the U-boat attacks on allied shipping in the North Atlantic during World War II.

Steed, who has lived in the same rent-stabilized, walk-up apartment on Third Avenue since 1977, is every elected official’s dream: She’s a self-professed “information junkie” who actually reads all their newsletters. Voraciously.

As an active senior who lives alone and likes to keep busy, she can often be found at gatherings, parties and other activities for the elderly that she’s spotted in the newsletters of Kallos, state Senator Liz Krueger, state Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright and U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, as well as nonprofits like the Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association and Health Advocates for Older People.

Of those six community newsletters, Kallos’ is by far the longest, while Krueger’s is a close second, Steed said. “Sometimes,” she confessed, “I don’t read it all the way through ... I just scan it!”

Nonetheless, she made it to page 46 of the 49-page July newsletter and focused on an event listing: “In honor of World Head and Neck Cancer Day,” it said, “please join us for free head and neck cancer screenings offered through Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.”


Steed had started smoking as a 15-year-old growing up on a farm in Colorado in 1960. She kept at it when she moved to Haight-Ashbury after high school. And when she arrived by bus in Manhattan in 1966.

Gauloises, the French cigarette, was her preferred brand, and hers was a 2.5 pack-a-day habit, she said. It continued during her career in book publishing at Pantheon in the 1970s and in her investigative work with private firms in the early 1980s.

After 25 years of 50 cigarettes a day, Steed finally quit in 1985, and she hasn’t smoked in 33 years.

Still, she feared the damage had been done. So on July 27, she headed uptown to the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer on Madison Avenue at East 124th Street in Harlem for the free screening — a 10-minute exam to check for a type of cancer that can afflict the nasal passages, mouth, throat or voice box of smokers.

In short order, Dr. Laura Wang found a suspicious lesion on Steed’s upper gum, and referred her to Dr. Jennifer Cracchiolo, a surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering, who conducted a biopsy that found she had cancer of the gum tissue on the right upper jaw.

Oral cancer makes up only three percent of new cancer cases, and it’s often overlooked, even by dentists, because of its location and initial innocuous appearance, which makes it seem more like a nuisance than a potential lethal malady.

In many cases, it will have spread to the lymph nodes by the time it’s detected, a Stage 2 condition in which 35 percent of patients die after five years, or metastasized into a Stage 3 condition, which is even more fatal.

Steed was one of the lucky ones. Thanks to the screening, and the newsletter, her cancer had been discovered at an early stage.

Six weeks later, on Sept. 10, she went into surgery at Memorial to remove her maxillary, or upper jaw, and a part of her palate. Doctors have since deemed her completely cancer-free.

“Kathleen sounded grateful and determined and full of life,” Jamieson said as he recalled their encounter.

Steed said she now has three goals: “To educate people about oral cancer, to emphasize the importance of attending as many free health screenings as possible — and to note how newsletters from elected officials can change lives.”

And she added, “If anyone ever questions the necessity of having 49 pages of listings, please remember that one of those listings saved my life.”

Kallos said he was always curious about the utility of his newsletter and whether it could be a tad too long, a subject he enjoys raising with Jamieson.

“Some might argue that less can be more,” he said. “But this is the argument against a shorter work product.”

“I am incredibly happy Ms. Steed is here to tell her story,” Kallos added. “This is one story, and one holiday party, that I will not be forgetting anytime soon.”


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