Anita Lynch had an unforgettable smile. You could say it’s still shining bright on a community forever changed by her selflessness. “She was the strongest and most caring person ever,” family friend Tricia Knapp said confidently. “Anita was always so positive and refused to throw in the towel. When it was time for her to leave us, we didn’t realize just how bad she was.”
In April 2011, Anita was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. The 37-year-old mother of three knew a lot about cancer, having been a big part of Relay for Life in Rolla, Missouri, so she was prepared to beat it. Despite the grim report, Anita’s smile shined even brighter.
“Even when she was at her sickest and you needed something, Anita was there for me,” said Rachel Allison, a family friend. “I have never met a more generous person. If there was a cause, she’d help, even if it wasn’t that much and even if she wasn’t feeling well. You couldn’t tell she was struggling at all.”
“People would ask her how she was feeling, to get her to unload,” recalled Travis Lynch, Anita’s husband. “But she’d turn the tables and ask what was going on with them and talk about their problems.” Anita’s problems, on the other hand, were quietly stacking up. Following a mastectomy, surgeons in Columbia, Missouri, soon removed all the lymph nodes on her left side. “Twenty-seven of 30 had cancer in them,” Lynch said. “Doctors could only go so far to the chest bone. There was still cancer.”
Anita endured 33 rounds of radiation in Rolla and traveled to and from Columbia for chemotherapy, hormone therapy and a surgery to remove her ovaries. “Sometimes it was nice to get in the car and have some down time, but there was a lot of stopping along the road and we felt every bump. It wasn’t easy,” Lynch explained.
The Rolla community couldn’t help but notice the Lynch family’s walls were closing in. “Anita was a stay-at-home mom who taught Sunday school,” Allison recalled. “When she was ill, the church asked if I could take over, but there’s no way anyone could fill her shoes. No one wanted to teach at that hour, which is why Anita had once stood up. She was also involved in Mothers Helping Other Mothers group meetings.”
Anita began to realize it was time to step aside. Her friends and family, however, never wavered. “Even strangers would bring us meals and gift cards, share their story, or Facebook would explode with their inspirational messages,” Lynch said, grinning. “You can’t start feeling sorry for yourself when everybody is behind you, pumping you up.” For at least six months at a time, members of the group called Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) would provide the Lynches with meals several days a week. “After they stopped, her Relay for Life team carried it on for months. Then the church would step in,” Lynch continued. “Because of the community, it allowed us to focus on the kids and have some sort of normalcy.”
In October 2013, Anita’s health took a sharp turn for the worse. “They found a spot on her liver and started oral chemotherapy,” Lynch recalled. “She got really bad while we were waiting to see if the drug was working, and we knew it was time for a second opinion.” The couple traveled to St. Louis where doctors started Anita on weekly chemotherapy – and more back-and-forth trips ensued. “Anita was really showing some progress, but it only helped for about five months. Her liver numbers deteriorated.”
A harsh winter found the couple stuck in Rolla on multiple occasions on appointment days, so they turned to Mercy Clinic Family Medicine – Rolla. “We coordinated with our doctor to see Dr. Ali at Mercy. We assumed he’d wave us through, but he didn’t just do the routine; he went through her whole history. He looked at everything and gave his take, coordinating with the cancer center in St. Louis. One thing we liked when we came to Mercy was the faith-based nature. It kept us strong. But as Anita was trying the last chemo drug, her body just couldn’t keep up the fight.”
The next step was hospice. “She wouldn’t have anything to do with it,” added Lynch. “In her mind she was always going to beat it. But she started swelling because of the liver cancer. She was becoming uncomfortable and in pain, so we called the nurses to the house, where they stood beside us for Anita’s last days.” She was surrounded by her family when she passed, peacefully, leaving behind her trademark. “I asked through my prayers that God would let her show us she was okay. After she passed, just moments after we all hugged, we turned to look at Anita. She had a huge smile on her face that was not there before, during or after she passed. There was no mistaking that it was our first miracle.”
The miracles continued. Through two separate fundraisers, family and friends raised tens of thousands of dollars in Anita’s honor. “It was unbelievable,” added Lynch. “Local businesses sponsored golf outings and fundraisers with very generous donations. T-shirts were made and a silent auction raised an incredible amount of money. So I went to the bank and set up a memorial fund to give back – because this is her legacy.”
“You reap what you sow,” added Allison. “That plays a big part in why we want to pay it forward. Everyone wants to give back, having been blessed to know and love Anita. And I can tell you it will be continuing. We’re planning yard sales, t-shirt sales and bake sales. We’re even hoping to repeat those successful fundraisers.”
“We were blessed beyond what we deserved,” said Lynch. “I know there are a lot of people who never have that in their life, or struggle through this horrible disease by themselves. We can help change that.”
In the spring, Lynch reached out to Mercy Health Foundation to donate $15,000 in Anita’s honor. The money will help Mercy provide Rolla cancer patients with wigs, nutritional assistance and transportation – things many people cannot afford due to health care costs. It also paid for a special bell. “When Mercy patients finish chemo, they will ring that bell as a symbol of accomplishment and victory, which is what Anita would have wanted to see,” said Karen Simpson-Neasby, vice president of Mercy Health Foundation. “Travis and his family were the very first to ring the bell, and I’m sure Anita was smiling down on them.”
To donate to the Team Anita – Pay it Forward Fund, click here, or call Karen Simpson-Neasby at 417-533-6192. The next golf tournament will be held at Piney Valley Golf Course on October 11, 2014. To learn more, visit the “Team Anita” Facebook page.