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Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Hinckley mother details being diagnosed during the pandemic

Hearing she had breast cancer was shocking enough for Rita Vitko. Then, add in a global pandemic.

CLEVELAND — At the end of March, the world was just starting to change forever at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And so was Hinckley native, Rita Vitko's life.

“I had gone for my mammogram and they said, 'Hey, you need to come back.' And, that's not really something odd for me. I usually have to go for that second mammogram," Rita said.

But this time, something was odd. A biopsy at MetroHealth Medical Center later confirmed the 55-year-old wife, mother of five and grandmother, had Stage 3 breast cancer.

“Completely, completely shocked," Rita recalled. “I couldn't even tell you how many nights I thought, "I can't not be here for my kids.”

It was a stunning diagnosis on top of a global pandemic. Metro, along with hospitals across the world, started to implement strict rules that restricted visitors.

Credit: Credit: Rita Vitko
Rita Vitko, 55, and her husband and children.

“They did set the parameters for like, 'This is serious and you need to take it serious as a person that is now diagnosed with cancer,'" Rita told us.

For Rita, that meant going it alone at treatment in the fight of her life. For five months, her husband Mark would drive her there, then watch his wife walk into the unknown.

"I think that was difficult for him. It was very difficult for him. And then my kids, you know, bless their hearts. They would ask him more about it. And I think it was hard for them to handle. In fact, I know it was because I know they would have been willing to come down for my treatments with me," Rita said. “I almost feel like, this whole thing with COVID has robbed them of a little bit of the healing part because that's part of the process watching someone you love go through come out on the other end in a positive way."

It was a world of uncertainty that dedicated frontline workers were navigating for the first time.

“There was some degree of anxiety exposing myself more. I mean, I know many of us changed the way we dressed to come into work and change into scrubs and not take those clothes home," said Rita's oncologist, and Director of Surgical Oncology at MetroHealth Medical Center, Dr. Natalie Joseph.

“I think we had to do a lot of just reassurance for patients, that we were taking all of the precautions to keep them safe," Dr. Joseph said.

And for Rita, she felt cared for during a time when she couldn't have family members by her side.

“I'm not a number, you know, they call me by my first name," Rita said of her caretakers.

After surgeries and other treatment, Rita's triumphant moment came when she rang the bell at the hospital, signifying the end of her chemotherapy -- and, one of the scariest times of her life.

Credit: Credit: Rita Vitko
Rita Vitko, 55, rings the bell at MetroHealth Medical Center, representing the end of chemotherapy treatment.

"I couldn't tell them, thank you, enough. I couldn't express how they have allowed me to have so much peace and be able to really work on me and my family and help them get through because they couldn't physically come here," Rita said.

For more information on Metro's breast cancer resources, click HERE. 

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