‘You’re not alone’
Sinai Woman Turns to Breast Cancer Patient Champion for Support
Rita Leintz of Sinai considers herself tough. So tough that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer on Oct. 14 last year, she kept up appearances for her family and friends. But inside, Rita felt alone.
“I was so positive about this whole process that I don’t even know if my kids took it as serious,” said Rita.
One night while lying on her side, Rita found a walnut-sized lump on the outer edge of her right breast next to her rib. She thought it was just a cyst, but she still made an appointment with CNP Tonya Buchholtz at Arlington Medical Center to have it checked out. After a mammogram, sonogram and biopsy, the lump was confirmed as breast cancer.
“When I got the call later, I just kind of knew,” said Rita. “It was harder for my family than it was on me because I have that mindset, whatever happens in life, happens. But telling them was very hard.”
Last winter, loneliness set in for Rita. She started looking online for a support group. Her search results came up with a Brookings Register article about Brookings Health System’s new Breast Cancer Patient Champion Mary Oien Reed. Brookings Health officially launched the program last December, thanks to funds raised by the Swiftel Center’s annual Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign. Rita gave Mary a call.
“I sat in my driveway in my car the whole time and just listened to her story,” said Rita. “I told her I was really okay. I didn’t want to do chemo or anything. She said, ‘Oh Rita, there’s so many things out there and things have changed since I’ve been through it… At least try.’”
Mary, a surgical nurse who recently retired from Brookings Health System, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999 with no family history. She found a lump and had it biopsied. The results came back as benign. Nine months later, the lump had enlarged. She had a lumpectomy; this time the results came back as an advanced cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes.
“As a nurse who worked among cancer patients and did surgery for breast cancer, I was blown away,” said Mary. “I felt very alone and very upended. And certainly very unsure about what the future held. I really did not feel I would be here after five years because it was so aggressive and so advanced. At that time there were no patient advocates, champions or navigators, so I did the journey on my own with the support of my family and friends.”
Six months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation, a lumpectomy, a double-mastectomy with reconstruction and 19 years of surviving later, Mary helps other patients with breast cancer, like Rita, so they do not have to walk their journey alone.
Mary encouraged Rita with her own story of survival. Rita talked to her oncologist, family and close friends and decided to undergo chemotherapy. Mary and Rita also started meeting with each other on a monthly basis.
“She was right there, saying, ‘Ask questions. You are your best advocate. If something doesn’t sound right, you ask. If something doesn’t feel right, you ask. It’s okay if this one isn’t working out. You go get another. This is you,’” said Rita.
Mary helped Rita develop a sense of normalcy. When Rita experienced memory lapses after starting chemotherapy, Mary reassured her it was temporary. When Rita became unable to work due to the cancer treatments, Mary encouraged her to file for disability and helped her find financial resources. Mary also helped Rita understand what was happening with her treatment process.
“She’s been great, just to have someone who has been there, done that,” said Rita.
What was more, Mary reassured Rita that is was okay for her to ask for help and to acknowledge her feelings of sadness, confusion or anger.
“You can watch people go through cancer,” said Rita. “You can assist people who go through cancer. You can see the harshness that goes with it. But until you go through it yourself, you are clueless.”
Since last October, Rita’s journey has included two rounds of chemotherapy, a double-mastectomy with reconstruction and radiation. Mary has been with her each step of the way. Short-term Rita hopes for one good year to counter her one bad year fighting cancer. After that, she plans to hope for another year. Long-term Rita hopes for 16 years so she can see her twin grandsons graduate high school. Her message to others who are fighting breast cancer is to not be afraid and to reach out.
“You’re not alone. You’re absolutely not alone, and you’re going to feel alone. There’s going to be days where you can have a million people in the same room, and you’re going to feel alone because they’re not going to understand that you’re so tired,” said Rita. “It was hard to ask for help, but you learn it’s okay to do that. Once you take that barrier down and are comfortable asking for help, you’ll be amazed at how many people are open and receptive to be with you.”
People in the Brookings region who are diagnosed with breast cancer may call Breast Cancer Patient Champion Mary Oien Reed at (515) 231-4432. She is available to listen, encourage and educate as well as help patients and their families bridge the medical, emotional and personal challenges of breast cancer.
Individuals who want to support local cancer patients may purchase Tough Enough to Wear Pink t-shirts at the Swiftel Center box office, SDSU Wellness Center, Avera Medical Group or Brookings Health System. Shirts are $12 for adult S-XL, $14 for 2XL and 3XL. Youth sizes S-L are also available. Please call the Swiftel Center with any questions at (605) 692-7539.
One-hundred percent of proceeds from the Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign stay local and go to Brookings Health System Foundation to support patient services like the Breast Cancer Patient Champion. For more information, please contact the Foundation at (605) 696-8855 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Swiftel Center
The Swiftel Center is a gathering place for cultural, recreational and educational events. With a 30,000 square foot arena, state-of-the-art banquet rooms, conference rooms and in-house catering, the Swiftel Center is an international award-winning venue of excellence and one of South Dakota’s premiere event centers. For more information, please visit www.swiftelcenter.com, call (605) 692-7539 or follow us at www.facebook.com/swiftelcenter.
About Brookings Health System
Brookings Health System, located in Brookings, South Dakota, includes a 49-bed hospital, the 79-bed The Neighborhoods at Brookview nursing home, Brookhaven Estates senior living apartments, Yorkshire Eye Clinic, and medical clinics in Arlington, White and Volga, South Dakota. It is a non-profit, city-owned facility that offers the community a full range of inpatient, outpatient, surgical and extended care services. The emergency room is staffed 24 hours a day and provides around the clock patient needs ranging from minor injuries to life threatening crises. For more information about the services offered at Brookings Health System, please call (605) 696-9000 or visit us on the Web at brookingshealth.org.