Value of volunteering

Breast cancer survivor knows what it means to give back

Leann Pierce holds her granddaughter at a Relay for Life event in Chico.

Leann Pierce holds her granddaughter at a Relay for Life event in Chico.

Photo courtesy of Leann Pierce

For years Leann Pierce had participated in the American Cancer Society’s annual Relay for Life fundraiser. Her mother had survived a battle with uterine and cervical cancer, so she knew how much help ACS provides cancer patients, and how valuable that help was.

In 2012, her involvement began to deepen.

In May of that year, her step-sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. That led her mother to ask her and her other sisters a blunt question: “All right, girls, when was the last time you had a mammogram?”

In Pierce’s case it had been eight years, long enough to make her think that, yeah, she should get tested. “I thought it was no big deal,” she said during a recent interview at a local coffee shop. “I hadn’t felt any lumps or anything.”

But her doctor wanted to do a biopsy. That was followed by a sit-down in the doctor’s office, where she got the word: “Well, Leann, they found something.”

Everything changed. “It kind of shook the family to the core, having two daughters with cancer at the same time.” Pierce was frightened, but she tried not to show it. “Of course you’re scared, but you have to be strong for your family,” she said.

She got tremendous support from her family, especially her husband, John, who she says was her “rock” while she was fighting the disease. And she got strong support from her colleagues at United Healthcare, where she has worked for 10 years.

She vividly remembers the day when she came to work and found dozens of her co-workers wearing T-shirts in her favorite color, purple. The shirts read, “Leann, fight like a girl!” and “Someone I love needs a cure.” Pierce was in tears. “It was just phenomenal to see a sea of purple throughout the site,” she said.

Pierce grew up in Corning and reared her two now-grown daughters there. She worked at the Bell-Carter olive processing plant for 10 years, then got a job as an office manager in a Red Bluff chiropractic office.

In 2005, she parlayed that experience into a job at the United Healthcare call center on East 20th Street in Chico. She was a little leery of working for such a huge corporation—UnitedHealth Group, the parent company of UHC, is one of the world’s largest health-care insurance companies, with more than 180,000 employees, 500 of them at the UHC facility in Chico—but decided that it offered more possibilities for promotion and growth than a private medical office does.

Sure enough, within a year she had become a trainer, prepping new hires on how to respond to all the possible questions about claims, coverage, deductibles, access to physicians and so on that they were likely to be asked. She is now a senior operations trainer.

“I have been just ecstatic to be there,” she said. “I love my job. I get to help people learn things. There’s always something to learn.”

One important thing she herself learned was that UnitedHealth Group strongly encourages employees to practice community service. It has an annual employee giving campaign that raises money for a wide range of charities—$20.5 million last year.

The United Health Foundation has invested more than $285 million in health-care research and treatment over the years. And its Children’s Foundation has raised more than $25 million that has gone to treat autism, diabetes, cancer and other illnesses in children.

United Health also gives $500 to a local charity in the name of any employee who puts in more than 30 volunteer hours in a year. Last year, United Health employees donated nearly 500,000 hours of volunteer service.

And the company supports three national walk teams: Relay for Life, the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk, and the Alzheimer’s Association’s Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

In a fractured health-care system like America’s, corporate giving plays an essential role in filling the cracks in service. A corporate culture that supports employee giving and volunteering also contributes to a sense of solidarity among those employees.

During her first six-month treatment, Pierce received what she said was “complete support” from her co-workers. “If I couldn’t drive, someone would pick me up,” she said. “People were always bringing me water and food at my desk.”

And then, of course, there were those purple T-shirts.

Chemotherapy didn’t stop her cancer, so she decided to have a double mastectomy. “I was always breast-heavy,” she said, “and it was hurting my neck and shoulders.” She’d thought about getting a reduction but put it off. Then “God took it out of my hands,” she said, laughing heartily.

She was off work following surgery for nearly five months, receiving radiation and more chemo. When she returned to UHC, she felt a strong desire to give back in some way.

She began by organizing a snack cart on-site, with all profits going to ACS’ Making Strides Against Breast Cancer program. She also stepped up to be captain of UHC’s Relay for Life fundraising team, doubling its take to $12,000, said Matthew Rodriguez, UHC public relations director. “She speaks regularly to local groups,” he writes in a letter to the CN&R, “and has appeared numerous times on local radio stations.”

This year she has taken on even more responsibility at Relay for Life, becoming its event coordinator—effectively, director of the whole show.

Debbie O’Conner, communications manager for Relay for Life, said Pierce “is one of our most valuable volunteers. We couldn’t do this without her. She is a blessing to us.”

Mind you, this is a woman who is still recovering from cancer. She has neuropathy in her hands and feet and suffers from “major hot flashes.”

“It is what it is,” she said stoically. “I’m alive and I’ll deal with it.”

She will continue to volunteer. “I feel like I make a difference,” she said, “and that’s important to me. I love this volunteer stuff.”