Mary Ann Lekatz tells a survivor’s story

by Diana Crombie

Mary Ann (Vidmar) Lekatz is a survivor. She did not spend 40 days on an island with TV cameras following her. Her story is the quiet struggle and courageous victory over the dreaded “C” word. Cancer.<BR><BR>Mary Ann and her husband John had their version of the good life going in rural Ely. Both in their 50s and looking forward to retirement, their three children were grown and thriving. There were three grandkids. Great family get togethers that included Mary Ann’s latest culinary endeavors. And the trips. “John and I did the traveling,” says Mary Ann. “It saved them having to bring a lot of ‘kid’ furniture. We had all the discarded toys here. When the kids came, they thought they had all new toys.<BR><BR>“I loved to cook and they knew it. I made anything they wanted. Meatballs wrapped in dough and baked was a favorite. The grandchildren like M and M cookies. I would sit with them and they’d think it was the funniest thing when I’d say, ‘Don’t you take the cookie dough!’ They’d steal it and they’d run,” laughs Mary Ann.<BR><BR>Fishing. Gardening. Never far from the antics of wildlife. Delighted grandkids as they fed deer from the deck and watched the squirrels tease the dog. This life was possible because Mary Ann and John worked hard and were sensible. She, a reliable secretary and bookkeeper at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church. John, many years in mining, is presently the water pump man at Northshore in Babbitt. <BR><BR>They had married after being high-school sweethearts and have always pulled together, even though they still tease each other about who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.<BR><BR>But on one spring day in 2000, Mary Ann sensed something was wrong. She was having a routine physical exam. The doctor ordered an ultrasound and mammogram. “I was watching the ultrasound and could see I had fibrocystic disease in one breast. Water cysts, one fairly big,” says Mary Ann. “We will have to drain that,” the doctor said. “I looked at the mammograms - 99 percent chance I did not have cancer,” Mary Ann reassured herself.<BR><BR>The draining procedure was begun. Then the doctor said she would have to finish while watching it under ultra-sound. Another appointment was set. Mary Ann started feeling alarmed. She did research on cancer at the American Cancer Society and Mayo Clinic sites on the computer. “Oh, there is something there,” she thought. “It looked like a Christmas tree,” says Mary Ann. “All this was growing behind the cyst, so it never showed up on the mammogram,” she says. Cancer! Shock. Surprise and then relief because something was found. “I had hoped it was just a lump,” says Mary Ann. It wasn’t just a lump - it was third-stage breast cancer.<BR><BR>“John was with me when the doctor said, ‘Now you can go, sit and think about what you want done,’” Mary Ann said. “There is no thinking. I already know.”<BR><BR>She had viewed the Mayo Clinic’s and the American Cancer Society’s websites and had opted for a mastectomy. <BR><BR>“When would you like the surgery?” the doctor asked. <BR><BR>“Tomorrow” was Mary Ann’s answer. After two days of tests the procedure was done. It was June 2, 2000 and it was still spring and Mary Ann had a long way to go.<BR><BR>Chemotherapy was started at the Duluth Clinic in Duluth. Follow up treatments at Ely Bloomenson Community Hospital. “Fabulous people here,” says Mary Ann. A portacatheter to save her tiny veins and chemo once every three weeks for 12 weeks. Then a clinical trial chemo - once a week for 12 weeks. A new treatment plan was showing a high survival rate with people with estrogen-based cancers.<BR><BR>“I would sit and laugh,” says Mary Ann, “as the nurse donned disposable gloves before she would touch me and the drugs. A drop of those drugs could cause a chemical burn on the nurse and here she was putting it into my body. I must have been the dumbest person - not realizing I would lose all my hair, not just what was on my head!” <BR><BR>It does grow back, but not like before, no eyebrows and sparse eyelashes. “The hair is a little thinner, but it is good to be alive,” she says. <BR><BR>Anti-nausea drugs helped her avoid the dreaded vomitting. A second prophalactic mastectomy was performed in the spring of 2001. “There was no cancer in the other breast but I felt better after the surgery,” says Mary Ann.<BR><BR>“At first you make deals,” says Mary Ann. “God, I work at church, why did you give me this disease?” Then she thought, “probably because I have a big mouth and He knew I would keep talking to help others.” <BR><BR>So when she was asked to take the support group for the American Cancer Society the words just came out. “I’ll take the support group,” she said. “I like talking to people. Sometimes they stop at church to talk to me. They also call me to ask questions and talk. Many people are afraid to say they have cancer. It is still a dirty word.<BR><BR>“Friends are the most important thing you can have. They would drive me to Hibbing for radiation therapy, it’s an hour and a half trip one way - and the treatment would last 15 minutes at the most,” Mary Ann says. “I would get so cold, but was thankful I was able to take 30 radiation treatments without burning. Prayers of friends and your prayers. They mean so much.<BR><BR>“The Catholic church has a sacrament for those who are having medical or physical problems called sacrament of the sick. I received the sacrament before both of my surgeries and received such a peaceful feeling.”<BR><BR>“My husband was scared because I had never been sick before, but he was always there. Holding me and piling on the blankets becase I was so super cold. He would go grocery shopping and I would think, ‘I never put that on the list.’ But my husband did not have any qualms about my surgeries. He was just thankful I was alive,” says Mary Ann. “We sit and joke now. We have date nights and travel more. We look forward to the family gathering at a casino/resort once a year.” <BR><BR> Trips with her girls to the Twin Cities, a play and eating out at a fancy resturant; new knitting projects (gifts for others) and adding to her collection of nutcracker dolls fill her life. “Oh, yes,” she says, “I should be planting or weeding my garden, even though the deer will eat the roses and the azaleas.<BR><BR>“I love to read. Most anything, except poetry. It’s just not me. I don’t care if skaters are skating to their deaths,” she laughs. And she loves to learn. The computer’s Excel program is challenging her now. “I liked school and like being a secretary. When I got into bookkeeping, I loved working with figures. You always come up with the balance,” she says. <BR><BR>Mary Ann’s life shows balance. It’s a solid life. She grew up an only child in Ely. Her parents were second generation immigrants. She enjoyed simple pleasures - made-up games with lots of neighborhood kids and was glad her own kids grew up in the woods - “had to use their imaginations,” she says. But hers was a disciplined life, too.<BR><BR>Volunteer work is also important to Mary Ann. The American Cancer Society sees her efforts - not only the support group, but work for the Relay for Life event in August. “My mother had chronic lukemia,” she says. A luminary will be lit in her honor. <BR><BR>“I saw what she went through for 20 years, even though she tried to hide her suffering. She would go in and out of remission and it really wiped her out. She passed away at age 75.”<BR><BR>Mary Ann at this time is cancer free. But ever watchful, Mary Ann gets her check-ups. She knows that she is never that far from cancer. Her nutcracker dolls stand as silent sentinels and she is ever ready to tell others how to be vigilant and sensible - more fruits and vegtables. <BR><BR>“If you have cancer, know there are many treatments out there,” she says. “Consider what works best for you, not others. But mainly feed the whole person.” Mary Ann knows laughter. Has a great smile. And embraces faith.<BR><BR>“A life where God is in it, you do a lot better,” she encourages. “It’s always something to fall back on. And remember, you become a survivor the moment you hear the diagnosis from the doctor.”