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‘Finding the lumps early on saved my life!’ High Point breast cancer survivor on a mission to raise awareness

The Alight Program at the Cone Health Cancer Center provides financial, educational and emotional support to patients as they move through treatment

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Women's Only 5K Walk and Run back in person on Saturday, October 1, 2022, after two years off during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can imagine emotions will be high as Triad breast cancer survivors, fighters, their families, and friends gather for a race around Cone Hospital that celebrates their cancer journey and the hard-fought battle they have won.

The money raised through the Alight Program to give more women access to free life-saving mammograms is just as important. The Cone Health Cancer Center program provides financial, educational, and emotional support to patients as they move through treatment.

Rhonitta Hayes walked in the 2019 Women's Only 5K in Greensboro to support her cousin. Little did she know she would make a life-changing discovery six months later, in March 2020.

"I threw my hand across my chest, and it just happened to land on my breast where I felt a knot," Hayes said. 

Doctors found two lumps in her left breast, and a biopsy confirmed it was Stage 2 Triple-negative breast cancer. According to The American Cancer Society, it is aggressive because it spreads quickly. TNBC is also more likely to come back after treatment than other types of breast cancer and tends to have a worse prognosis.

Hayes told WFMY News 2's Tracey McCain that early detection is critical.

"It saved my life," Hayes said. "I had surgery in April, chemo started in May, and it went through September, and then in October to December, I did 25 rounds of radiation."

That was in 2020, when hospitals were closed to visitors, and no family was allowed in to hold her hand.

"This is right when COVID started, so I did everything alone with my family in the parking lot on FaceTime," Hayes said.

But she did find support through the Alight Program, where she learned she's not alone.

"The numbers are incredible. We, on average, get 6 to 8 new patients a week. Do the math on that. Every week! And that's just who's coming into the clinic," said Jill Berry.

Berry is an Alight Program assistant and a 13-year breast cancer survivor. Through the Cone Health Cancer Center program, Berry connects newly diagnosed breast cancer patients with mentors to help them navigate the journey.

"Once you hear the words you have breast cancer, all these things go through your mind. What's next, and how am I going to end up? You can't see the end game," Berry said.

She says fear of the unknown and finances keep women needing care from their annual checkups and breast cancer screenings. The Alight Program helps with that too.

"They were able to help me with gas for my car and paying a bill," Hayes said. "Women should never let finances be why they don't go to the doctor. My bills amounted to about $400,000. Thankfully, I did not have to come out of my pocket with $400,000. So, there is help."

"No matter your insurance or financial situation, get your mammogram and checkups. Worry about the financial stuff at the end. Let's get you treated and stay alive," Berry said.

Money to help women get life-saving screenings and counseling services comes from fundraisers, including Cone Health's Women's Only 5K Walk and Run. Every entry is a donation towards the Cone Health Mammography Scholarship Fund, which provides mammograms for women who otherwise could not afford the screening service.

"Every day, we're impacting lives through the programs we provide," Berry said.

Hayes started participating in the race as a breast cancer supporter, but she'll tackle it this time, 18 months cancer free.

"This will be the first official walk where I can say I know why we are walking. To have gone through that journey and come out on the other side even better than before. Breast cancer does not have to be a death sentence, and I am now back on the path of living my best, cancer-free life," Hayes said.

Support is the Alight Program's primary mission. The program support clinics every Wednesday night where all newly diagnosed breast cancer patients can share their experiences and get more information on resources. There are virtual support groups as well, which do not require a referral.

You can contact the Alight Program on Cone Health's website or click here.

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