You know her as the energetic, confident, picture-perfect icon of “Entertainment Tonight.” But on August 17 at a special event in Sioux Falls, S.D., she stepped on stage personifying a new day in the fight against breast cancer.
“Hello everybody. I’m Mary Hart. And this is my mother,” said the native South Dakotan, proudly holding a framed photo.
The daughter of a breast cancer survivor and the granddaughter of a woman who lost her battle, Hart is the national spokesperson for Sanford Health’s groundbreaking Edith Sanford Breast Cancer.
A gift of $100 million from philanthropist T. Denny Sanford established the bold initiative. “This is in my mother’s honor,” he said. “But it’s also in honor of all of our special loved ones.”
Sanford was just 4 years old when breast cancer took his mother. Decades later, the disease continues to ravage families and lives, taking beloved mothers, wives, sisters and friends. Breast cancer is diagnosed in one in eight women.
Sanford and every dignitary on stage that day connected with Hart’s sense of urgency: “There is one thing today that we all have in common,” she said looking out at the 400 invited guests. “We are impatient. We want breast cancer to end now. We want to find the cure.”
A turning point
Speakers at the event highlighted the pieces that will elevate Edith Sanford Breast Cancer to a new level in breast cancer care, research — and cure.
Eugene Hoyme, president of Sanford Research, described the innovative approach that will involve “second-generation whole-genome sequencing.” The result? Finely tuned treatment tailored to each woman’s genetic make-up. Ultimately, he said, Sanford Health expects the research to lead the way to a cure.
Becky Nelson, chief operating officer at Sanford Health, explained the “bio bank” that will collect, process and store genetic information. Women across the country will have the opportunity to donate blood samples, equipping researchers to make revolutionary discoveries.
“Regardless of diagnosis, everyone will be able to participate directly by contributing to our unique and advanced database for accelerated research,” she said.
In addition to an extensive research endeavor, Edith Sanford Breast Cancer will include a new state-of-the art treatment center in Sioux Falls and an expanded center in Fargo.
It’s about family
“And now I’d like to introduce you to a very special person with us today,” said Nelson, nodding to Lou Waltner sitting in the front row. A barista at a Sanford Health coffee shop, she’s the founding donor to the bio bank.
Wearing a colorful scarf to cover her sparse hair due to chemotherapy, Waltner took the stage, joined by her daughter and granddaughter. At age 61, she fights breast cancer — the same disease that took her mother more than 50 years ago.
“I am proud to work for an organization that’s making breast cancer a priority,” she said quietly and nervously, but with great determination. “I want to thank you on behalf of everyone touched by this disease, and I also want to thank Mr. Sanford for making this possible.” Wiping away tears, she stepped away from the podium and took her daughter’s hand.
Waltner was one of 25 women recognized at the event — all of them pioneers who inaugurated the bio bank.
Can Edith Sanford Breast Cancer really lead to a cure? Sanford Health CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft stated the answer clearly. “We feel the finish line is in sight,” he said, noting the commitment and passion Denny Sanford has inspired in the Sanford Health family.
Hart underscored the need for broad participation — a key to success. “This is going to be a very important grassroots effort that we want all of you to be a part of,” she said.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder on stage with Krabbenhoft and Sanford, Hart wrapped up the event with just the touch the audience loved.
“I want you to know how meaningful it is for me to be a part of this remarkable organization,” she said. “Now I can say I’m not going to hang out with Tom Cruise and George Clooney anymore — I have Denny and Kelby. And I’m going to help find a cure for breast cancer.”