October 22, 2021

Cathi Bernardo remembered for courageous cancer fight

‘She never complained’

Cortland Standard File Photo

Jackie Newton, left, puts on a hat made by Cathi Bernardo, right, while in her crafting room in Cortlandville on Jan. 16.

Jackie Newton is grappling with the death of her best friend, Cathi Bernardo.

“I am at a loss for words. She was amazing, amazing. I am still in shock. I knew it was coming,” said Newton, of Cortland, a mortgage and loan officer at Paragon Home Loans.

But still.

“I think she’s going to call me today,” Newton said Wednesday.

Bernardo, 50, the bar and restaurant manager, bookkeeper and caterer at Walden Oaks Country Club, died Sunday of breast cancer.

She leaves behind husband, Marcus Bernardo, the general manager of the golf club, and children, Samantha and Mario; her parents, David and Helen Rutkowski Sr., and brothers David, Joseph and Patrick.

Services were Thursday at St. Mary’s Church in Cortland. People can make donations in Bernardo’s name to the McGraw Lions Club.

Newton was among a group of friends who helped Bernardo found a non-profit, Foundation of Courage, to support people with cancer at Guthrie Cortland Medical Center.

The women make pamper packets for oncology patients who experience dry skin and other side effects from chemotherapy. Bernardo also made fun hats and gave them to people who lost hair as the result of cancer treatment. She made bracelets, “courage cuffs” to sell to support the foundation.

Rhonda Berry of Homer, Janina Wright of Cortland and Maureen McDermott-Mulherin of Cortlandville were among others involved.

“She never complained. If somebody walked up to her on the street, they never would know she was struggling with cancer,” Newton said. “She was always happy go lucky.”

“This past weekend, she was saying, ‘I am OK.’ One of our friends came in. He was clearly upset. ‘I am OK. I am doing great,’” Bernardo told him.

Bernardo was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, at age 45, and went through treatment.

She was in remission when she took part in the Cortland Relay for Life in 2016. She learned to appreciate the now.

“The past is past and I try to really appreciate and be present in the moment,” she said at the time.

Then she had stage IV metastatic breast cancer in 2018 and battled it out at the hematology and oncology unit at Guthrie Cortland Medical Center and other hospitals, including Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

In January, when Bernardo and her friends were getting the foundation off the ground, she was holding her own, keeping the cancer at bay, not growing, but still there, with a chemo pill.

She wanted to help people on the oncology unit at Guthrie Cortland, and enjoy her family and friends.

“Once we all get through this, we will probably go back and look at it,” Newton said of the foundation. “We’ll try and keep it going in her memory, in her honor.”

“Never take any day for granted, she would want people to know. Don’t put off. And always tell them that you love them,” Newton said. “If I could be half the woman that she was! It’s going to be a while. She put the sparkle in my eye.”

Sheila Abbey of Cortland met Bernardo through the McGraw Lion’s Club, which she was a member of for six years.

“She knew what her passion was,” Abbey said. “She was very involved with the vision program … She worked with CAPCO to go to the schools to do eye screenings,” part of an initiative by the McGraw Lion’s Club to encourage eye health.

Abbey said Bernardo’s father was a former district governor with the Lions Club. The pair were instrumental in receiving the approval from school districts and CAPCO that would get kids’ vision screened in this area.

Abbey saw her in action, working with the kids getting screened at the Cortland United Methodist Church on Route 222. The kids would melt under her smile.

“One time, we made ornaments at the McGraw Library with children,” Abbey said. “She was there where her daughter, Sam. She had an infectious smile. The kids didn’t want to go. They wanted to keep on making ornaments.”

Rhonda Berry of Homer, a Mary Kay independent sales director, knew Bernardo about 10 years.

“She ran women’s retreats with me for 10 years. She cooked for me. She was our chef.”

It was a volunteer post, providing 20 women with vegetarian, organic fare, Berry said.

“She was an excellent cook. She used to do catering at Walden Oaks,” Berry said. “No matter what task you gave her, she could do it.”

“Six months ago, she signed on with me as a Mary Kay consultant,” Berry said. Bernardo would use the profits from Mary Kay to fund her foundation.

“We are going to make sure we keep that alive,” said Berry. “She taught me to always be my best. … She taught me to love when I didn’t want to love.”