Mary's Circle of Hope The Mary Maguire Foundation
Our History

Riopelle faces the toughest rebound

03/15/2005
The Post-Crescent www.postcrescent.com

One of the best prep female basketball players in Appleton history had finished her workout.

It wasn't like she had finished a marathon. Far from it. But she was tired, dead tired she feared.

"The first time I tried to walk, I could barely get halfway up the block," Maureen Riopelle, a 1980 Xavier High School graduate, said of exercising after receiving her first two chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. "I was bending over, very fatigued and feeling incredibly lousy. A neighbor asked, 'Do you want a ride home?' "

Riopelle, a 42-year-old Cincinnati resident, received the frightening news in December 2003. Her mother, Mary, had died of leukemia in June 2001 and her sister, Tracey O'Leary, had been diagnosed with the same form, chronic lymphocytic leu-kemia, in spring 2002. Three of Riopelle's grandparents died of leukemia.

The combination of her family being ravaged by cancer and her own indomitable spirit provided the impetus for Riopelle to start "Mary's Circle of Hope, The Mary Maguire Foundation" in honor of her mother --using her mom's maiden name. The foundation's aim is to provide various and unique forms of assistance to women stricken with cancer and their families.

Tracey said Maureen is the perfect person for the job.

"Maureen was still going through breast cancer treatment and yet she flew me to Ohio to see a doctor, and that's why I'm going through the treatment I am now," said O'Leary, a 48-year-old Menasha resident who's undergoing chemotherapy and hoping her disease goes into remission. "She is so worried about me. She has done so much for so many people."

Riopelle attributed the discovery of her cancer to women's intuition.

"I had a mammogram in September and the results came back that I was fine," Riopelle said. "I felt a lump in there and pain starting to develop. I knew in my heart something was wrong.

"Finally, I saw a breast specialist surgeon and, with confirmation from an excisional biopsy, she diagnosed it. In January, following a sentinel node biopsy surgery she found it had gone into the lymph nodes and had to bump up four rounds of chemo to eight. You realize, 'Oh, my God, I could die.' The stubborn part of me said, 'I won't let this win.' "

Riopelle had already endured more than her share of disappointment.

After helping Xavier to the 1978 Wisconsin Independent Schools Athletic Association state title her sophomore year and being selected first-team all-state as a senior, the point guard received a basketball scholarship to the University of Iowa.

But Riopelle, who had also excelled in volleyball in high school, played only one game for the Hawkeyes. Plagued by knee problems since grade school that resulted in five surgeries in a seven-month span, she was told she would never run again.

"It wasn't much fun for an 18/19-year-old with all these hopes and dreams," Riopelle said. "My goal was to play in the Olympics."

A National Honor Society student at Xavier, she later enrolled at St. Norbert College, graduating in 1987 with a 4.0 grade-point average. She works for Pearson Education, Prentice Hall Publishing as the director of business and market development in the corporate and government arena.

"As you might expect, Maureen has been a real asset in this role," said Robin M. Baliszewski, president of Pearson Education's Prentice Hall Career, Health, Education and Technology Division. "Most recently, she garnered success in creating leadership and management training for the military personnel and in developing educational courses for the rebuilding of Iraq in areas such as establishing criminal justice systems, building the city's infrastructure, construction and more."

Riopelle also enjoyed an active lifestyle as an adult, walking extensively, in-line skating, lifting weights and limited running. But then came the discovery of her most difficult hurdle.

"Losing my parents has definitely been the hardest thing to endure. Witnessing Tracey's struggle and my own cancer battle have been tough as well," Riopelle said. "What was especially hard for me was being so sick. To be so physically and emotionally worn down, that was rough. I'm not a quitter, but at one point when things got really bad, I said to the doctor, 'Do you ever stop treatment?' He said, 'Not for you.' "

Riopelle began chemotherapy Jan. 23 and finished June 25, the three-year anniversary of her mother's death. From the treatments, she went from 132 pounds to 110 in the first two months of chemo, but the cancer is now in remission and she passed her one-year checkup.

"Everything looked fine," she said. "Whew! Thank goodness. With breast cancer, they don't have definitive tests yet so they can't say for sure it's gone, but the doctors feel good about things.

"I was lucky it was found as early as it was. I feel very lucky to be alive and regaining my health. I was financially able to cover things. I had good insurance and wonderful doctors who really saved my life."

Riopelle recently has had some back pain and went in for an MRI.

"It turned out to be just herniated discs and not anything related to the cancer," Riopelle said. "But once you have received a cancer diagnosis, they always have to investigate and want to rule that out first when other things arise. Thank God it was not more cancer."

Despite her own busy life and her health concerns, the former star point guard is determined to assist others.

"This really got me thinking," she said of her decision to start the foundation. "As lucky as I was in this situation, a lot of women aren't. They are dealing with cancer alone or with little babies, and I wanted to do something to help them.

"My mom was really adamant about treating people how you want to be treated. I thank God and my mother -- my very special angel -- every day for my new lease on life. Through the foundation, I hope to help others attain the same."

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