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Staff member Pam Hanitchak dies at 45
STANFORD -- Pam Hanitchak, a long-time Stanford staff member who spent her last years helping educate others about breast cancer, died of the disease Friday, Oct. 15, at her Palo Alto home. She was 45.
Hanitchak had been on disability since 1989 from her position as human resources director in Stanford's computing unit, then called Information Resources.
A memorial service will be held at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22, in Memorial Church, followed by a party at the Faculty Club to celebrate her life.
Hanitchak, who was part Cherokee, helped launch the American Indian Staff Forum at Stanford during the 1980s and worked to strengthen ties between American Indian staff and students. She was a freshman adviser during much of her career.
At a party for graduating seniors in spring 1989, Indian students surprised Hanitchak with an eagle star quilt specially made for her in South Dakota.
"She gave her heart to the Indian community," one member said not long afterward. "She is an auntie - a term of endearment applied to an adviser and friend who is a cross between a best sister and most fun aunt."
Hanitchak's illness dated back to 1985, but initially was misdiagnosed, causing a two-year treatment delay. Other errors were made along the way, and by 1989 her cancer had spread to the bone.
She then began a quiet campaign to educate others about the disease, advising women about the need for breast exams and speaking to Dr. David Spiegel's medical classes about emotional aspects of the disease. She also appeared on a national television program about cancer.
In 1989, she told Spiegel's first-year medical students that "doctors should recognize that they are not treating a disease but a human being with a disease."
"As usual," she said shortly afterward in a lengthy interview about her illness, "I got back more than I gave." One of the many students who talked to her after the class was a young woman who had lost her mother at age 9. The budding doctor told Hanitchak that her mother was still very much with her - comforting words for Hanitchak, whose son was then 7.
Hanitchak advised female friends to examine their breasts often, even once a week. If a lump is discovered, insist on a referral to a surgeon. "I did not do that because I had been reassured by my primary physician, whom I trusted, that I only had a fibroid tumor and it was nothing to worry about."
If a lump persists, she advised, insist on a needle biopsy. If the biopsy confirms cancer, insist on seeing an oncologist. Often, patients are only referred to an oncologist if underarm lymph nodes are involved, she said.
As for mammograms, they are important, Hanitchak said, but women should ask if they are clear and readable.
Hanitchak said her greatest fear in life was that she would develop breast cancer. Yet, when that happened, she discovered an "inner strength I didn't even know I had."
In the last year, she founded the Perfect Health Group, an incorporated non-profit organization dedicated to helping people with serious and chronic illness to cope with their illness, live longer and, when the time comes, to die peacefully. The group concentrates on meditation and ayurveda healing, a 300-year-old East Indian healing system involving both spiritual and natural medicinal healing techniques.
Hanitchak was born in St. Helens, Ore., and grew up in Sacramento. She attended American River Junior College, then San Francisco State, where she started to major in dance. Sidelined by a knee injury, she switched to sociology.
She worked for six years at Kaiser Medical Centers, then came to Stanford in 1976 as a compensation/benefits assistant in the Hospital personnel office. She rose to benefits manager, then took a personnel position in the office of the Medical School dean before transferring to the computing center as personnel manager. She then consulted outside the university for about a year, returning to take a position in the university's central compensation unit in 1982. Two years later, she was named human resources director in the computing unit.
Hanitchak met her husband when both were taking a master dance class through Stanford's Dance Division. A piano craftsman, Leonard Hanitchak tunes, repairs and rebuilds pianos. Earlier in his career, he was a musician and professional dancer in New York. His father was Polish and his mother Choctaw-Chickasaw Indian. In his musician days he used to be introduced as the world's only Polish-American Indian musician, according to his wife.
Because of their ancestry, the Hanitchaks were allowed to adopt at birth their son, Rainey, who is from the California Pomo tribe.
In the spring of 1989, 200 friends honored Hanitchak, her husband and son at a barbecue and dance at the Buck estate organized by Pat Devaney, Cecilia Burciaga and others.
Before the party, Hanitchak was worried the event would be "morose and sad," she later said. But it turned out to be a "magical evening," with friends "being happy and sharing love and coming together for a united purpose."
At the event, a trust fund was established to help pay Rainey's future educational expenses. More than $25,000 was collected in gifts and pledges. The fund is providing resources to pay for after-school tutoring for Rainey this year.
At the party, Hanitchak told her friends: "It's very important that when the time comes you leave in peace. You've helped with that, and that's a precious, precious gift."
Then the one-time dancer said: "Yesterday's gone, tomorrow isn't here yet, so what is there to worry about? Let's dance!"
In addition to her husband and son, Hanitchak is survived by her parents, Betty and John Howard, and a younger sister, Chere Weir, all of Crescent City, Calif.
The family prefers donations either to the American Indian Staff Forum at Stanford, c/o American Indian Program, Old Union Clubhouse #12, Stanford, CA 94305-3064, or to the Perfect Health Group, c/o Persees Goerbel, 2043 Tripiano Court, Mountain View, CA 94043.
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