Ben Avon woman heads “Race”

Ben Avon resident Dawn Reinhart proudly displays a scrapbook that details her son D.J.’s efforts to support her battle against breast cancer by raising funds for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. A 16-year cancer survivor, Reinhart is the honorary chairperson for this year’s Race in Pittsburgh, which will be held on Mother’s Day in Schenley Park in Oakland. Photo by Nancy Whyte for The Citizen


Cancer survivor Dawn Reinhart of Ben Avon has been named chairperson of this year's “Race for the Cure” in Pittsburgh. As chair, Reinhart, a 16-year breast cancer survivor, becomes the "ambassador and face of the race," which takes place Sunday, May 10, at Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park.

Reinhart has been active with the Susan G. Komen race since 2001. She finds gathering with other breast cancer survivors to be empowering.

"The first time I put it on, I was ambivalent about the 'pink shirt,' the symbol worn by breast cancer survivors," she said. "Then, as I saw so many other women, creating this long, solid line of pink stretching up the hill, I got incredibly proud. It's emotional." Reinhart explained, "I made it; I survived cancer. I need to support others who are now feeling the way I did. The key is remaining positive. Individuals facing cancer need to know that they are not alone.

"When you get a diagnosis of cancer, your world stops," admitted Reinhart. But for everyone else, the world keeps on going. Living your life takes on a different meaning."
Reinhart's 1999 diagnosis of breast cancer came out of the blue. She was only 34 years old and a healthy, stay-at-home home mother.

"I had it all: a wonderful husband; a nice house with a picket fence; a son, D.J., who was almost 5 years old; and a daughter, 18-month-old Lexie. And then I got cancer."

Reinhart had none of the common risk factors for breast cancer, and there was no family history of cancer.

The first symptom Reinhart experienced was a pain near her chest wall. "I often carried my daughter on my left hip, and I thought I had pulled something," she explained. "Then, when massaging the area, I found a lump."

She was sent immediately for a mammogram, her first. Two tumors were found. A biopsy confirmed cancer. Reinhart had triple-negative breast cancer, which presented yet another challenge.

Most breast cancers contain one of three receptor genes. Those receptors are used to target chemotherapy. Without possessing any of those receptor genes, triple-negative breast cancer is more difficult to treat, and combinational therapies are generally utilized. The risk of a relapse is much higher during the first three to five years than for other breast cancers, according to statistics.

"It's quite sobering when your doctor sits across from you and says that you have a potentially-fatal disease," Reinhart said. "In the beginning, the prognosis was not very good."

Such a diagnosis can seem surreal.

"At first you look fine. It doesn't hurt. But you know you have a time bomb inside you," she said. "I cried. A lot. And then I got the crying out of my system and put my game face on. I decided that death was not an option. I had two children to raise. I decided I would deal with it one day at a time."

"I never asked, 'Why me?' Instead, I thought, 'Why not me?'"

Reinhart's doctors used multiple strategies to treat the disease. First, Reinhart received four courses of chemotherapy to shrink the tumors. Then she underwent surgery. After that, she received six weeks of radiation treatments. Finally, she received additional doses of chemotherapy.

"I received my first round of chemotherapy on the day of 'Kindergarten Round-up.' I did both. I wasn't going to miss this important event in my son's life." She admits that at the time, she wondered if she would be around for future benchmark events, such as his high school graduation.

Concerning her son, Reinhart said, "My husband and I were always open with D.J. We explained things in age-appropriate ways. We told him that mommy had something growing inside that the doctors were going take out, and that I would probably lose my hair."

"D.J. thought about it for a moment, then he said, 'You'll look kinda funny, mom, but you can borrow my hats any time.'"

"That put it in perspective," said Reinhart. "D.J. was my right-hand guy. He would keep his sister occupied while I rested on the couch. He'd help fill my ice bags."

Chemotherapy, she said, made her feel sick and look sick. "At first I was clinging to the toilet, and I was so tired. Then I lost all of my hair. That's when people start to treat you differently - as if you become the disease."

"I felt crappy, but I didn't take to bed. Someone once told me that 90 percent of the battle of fighting cancer takes place from the shoulders up."

Reinhart's attitude undoubtedly had positive effects on both herself and others.

"I had always been a girly-girl, and losing my hair was traumatic. So, I used humor, and in doing so, I got others to lighten up. I bought five different wigs, in various colors. I decided I'd have fun with it. I even bought different-colored contacts for variety.

Reinhart survived her bout with breast cancer. And in some ways, she thinks the experience may have had some positive effects on her life.

"I've been to hell and back, and I'm better for the journey," she said.

"I live each day. Nothing is mundane anymore. I went back to school and studied computers -- information technology support. I pursue my passions. I've gone kayaking, para-sailing and whitewater rafting. I've pursued my passions," Reinhart explained.

Reinhart loves to sing. She's performed in several groups and currently is working with Greg Priano, a man whose life has also been touched by cancer. Formed last August, their duo, the Power of Two, performs at various bars, clubs and charitable events.

In surviving cancer, Reinhart added, "I know the relationship I have with my son and daughter would have been close whether I'd gotten cancer or not. That's the type of family I come from. But I think knowing that I might have missed so much has strengthened the bond. My kids are now 21 and 17, and we still give hugs and say 'I love you.' None of us take our relationship for granted"

D.J.'s admiration for his mom was reflected in his high school senior project: he trained for the Pittsburgh Half-Marathon race, and was a runner on the Komen Team in May, 2006. D.J. finished the 13-mile race in just under two hours, and raised over $1,000 for the Komen cause. He put together a scrapbook illustrating his efforts, which his mom proudly displays. D.J.'s summary statement reveals his philosophy toward obstacles, which mirrors his mom's, "Running the marathon -- no walk in the park."

D.J., currently a student at CCAC studying computer science, continues running marathons.

Lexie is currently a senior at Avonworth High School. Like her mother, Lexie is gifted in the arts, both graphic arts and theater. She recently performed as one of the "Blue Birds" in the school's play "Seussical." Next year, Lexie will probably attend CCAC.

As with any cancer survivor, for Reinhart, the threat of a relapse is always in the back of her mind. "When you wake up in the morning with a new ache or pain, particularly without an injury to explain it, that's a worry."

"I have had a couple of scares. About one year out of treatment, I had some pain in my chest. It was in my lung. I couldn't breathe, and I was so afraid that the cancer had metastasized to my lungs," said Reinhart.

Fortunately, tests proved that wasn't the case.

"I remember my dad cheering, 'Yeah! It's pleurisy.'"

Earlier this year, Reinhart experienced a number of anxious and nervous days after her foot became numb. She began losing feeling in her leg and had pain associated with her sciatica nerve.It's a common enough ailment, but for a cancer survivor it becomes something else entirely. "Breast cancer often reoccurs by hiding in the spine. I again worried that the cancer had metastasized," she said.

Reinhart smiles when explaining, "Thank God, it was just a herniated disc."

However, her positive mindset keeps Reinhart prepared, "If it comes back, I'll fight it again."

Reinhart is looking forward to her role as chairperson for the Race for the Cure event in Pittsburgh. Although a night owl by nature, and having a Power of Two performance the night before, on the morning of May 10, she'll be ready for the media interviews at 6 a.m., followed by giving a speech to the crowd at Flagstaff Hill.

"I want others to know that if I can do it (fight and survive cancer), they can do it, too." She adds, that "if one is going to get breast cancer, Pittsburgh is the place to get it."

"Pittsburgh has a style all its own," says Reinhart. "The people here support their sports teams. They support their causes - like the Komen Race for the Cure."

Reinhart feels there is a reason why she has survived and she wants to continue to "pay it forward."

"I'm still here because my job isn't done. I was allowed to beat the odds for a reason. That's why I share my story so freely. I owe that; it's part of my destiny. I want to help others to follow their dreams."

The Pittsburgh Komen Race is held on Mother's Day, and generally more than 30,000 individuals participate.

"As a mom, it would be nice to stay home, sleep in, and maybe have breakfast in bed," said Reinhart. "But as a breast cancer survivor, until cancer is no longer a threat, it is important to be here."

According to Reinhart, "Most of the money raised stays local. It is used to fund mammograms for uninsured and under-insured women. It is used to provide grants for radiology fellowships."

The fund-raising goal for this year's race is $500,000.

Reinhart says that as a child, she wanted to be a rock star. "But as an adult, I became a poster child for breast cancer."

And that's okay, because it means she survived.

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