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Floral High Ground

Potomac woman runs lily-themed luncheon for breast cancer research.

Barbara Ekey is not an professional auctioneer, but bouncing around a banquet room in Bethesda driving up the bids on an arrangement of lilies, she puts some of the pros to shame.

A former photo-journalist, Ekey became an author, inventor, motivational speaker, non-profit manager and auctioneer after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997.

Her book “Lilies for a Breast Cancer Free Life” uses the resilient flower as symbol of strength, interlacing humor, stress-relief techniques, and medical advice. Ekey donates proceeds from the book’s sales—and from sales of her patented medical devices—to breast cancer research.

Still, she said, “I wasn’t giving enough.

“So I thought, ‘I’ll combine everything I know and am—my writing, my motivational speaking and also the fact that my husband has been in the floral industry, his family, for 90 years.’”

The result was the Grow for Life Foundation—her research and education non-profit—and a one-of-a-kind event, the Lilyfest.

Lilyfests draw together cancer survivors, researchers, and educators along with florists and floral enthusiasts. Attendees eat a catered lunch then bid on floral arrangements by the country’s top designers. The ticket receipts and auction proceeds go to Grow for Life.

ON THE HEELS of successful events in Minneapolis, Chicago, San Francisco, and Ft. Myers, Fla., Ekey set her sights on holding a Lilyfest in the Washington area.

She turned to her friend Susan Fritschler, a Potomac resident and member of the Grow for Life board, to organize.

Fritschler is not a particularly ardent flower enthusiast. “My petunias grow but that’s about it,” she said. But she is the friend who stood by Ekey as Ekey endured chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

“Instead of focusing on the negative, we played tennis, sampled the fare at fine restaurants and filled our lives with laughter,” Ekey said.

During a 12-month period, Fritschler saw four friends and colleagues diagnosed with the disease, which affects one in eight women during their lifetimes.

Fritschler spent six months planning the Washington Lilyfest, which was held March 1 at the Hyatt Regency Bethesda.

Scott Edwards, a winner of national floral design awards, provided the arrangements and surgeon Pamela Wright of Suburban Hospital spoke at the event.

“The message I came away with was you don’t need to be so afraid of this anymore. You can detect it early. There are less invasive treatments. There are better medications,” Fritschler said of Wright. “What I really liked about her is she’s very matter-of-fact about all of this.”

Fritschler very matter-of-fact herself. Every penny raised at the event will be spent locally, divided about equally between research and education grants.

“It’s not mega-bucks,” she said, “but it’s a start.”