Beyond breast cancer: Rica Mendes continues to battle, and share, her courageous story

Reporter Linda Lombroso wrote this story on our blogger, Rica Mendes, for the Sunday Life section on Nov. 20, 2011:

Every Sunday, we write about residents we call “rock stars,” but few of them are actually musicians — they are just local people who are in the spotlight, or who are deserving of some positive attention.

Rica Mendes just might be our first overnight sensation.

We met her, in late September, getting fitted for a wig at the American Cancer Society’s headquarters in White Plains. At 37, the divorced mother of two from South Salem had recently undergone a double mastectomy and was preparing for the eventual day when chemotherapy would claim her long hair.

Journal News photographer Xavier Mascareñas — who was at the cancer society on an assignment to shoot low-cost resources for breast-cancer patients — struck up a conversation with Mendes, who was there to select a free wig. Mascareñas asked if he could take her photograph. She agreed, and gave him her telephone number, too. We called her to follow up, and discovered she was a blogger and leader for LiveStrong, the cancer-advocacy foundation created by athlete Lance Armstrong.

We were looking for someone to blog for us during October, as part of our coverage of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and asked Mendes, who jumped at the opportunity.

The blog, which launched just days later, quickly became a hit with readers. In her chatty, no-holds-barred style, Mendes reported on her personal struggle, chronicling everything from her grueling chemotherapy treatments to the shock of losing clumps of her hair — which she captured, on camera, during one of her many video-diary posts.

“I’ve always been a heart-on-the-sleeve kind of person,” she says.

As tough as it must have been for Mendes, her frankness made us admire her even more — and her courage was inspiring to our readers, many of whom wrote to tell us so. After Mendes was bald, in mid-October, she continued to post video blogs staring straight into the camera.

In this information age, she says, people deserve to see and hear the truth.

“I’m bald, there’s no hiding that. And I’ve got cancer, it’s hard to hide that,” she says. “It takes a lot more strength and restraint not to talk about it.”

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Survivor story: Maria Souto of South Nyack

Peter D. Kramer wrote this profile of South Nyack survivor Maria Souto for the Sunday Life section on Oct. 23, 2011:

Maria Souto knew better.

The daughter of nurses, Souto knew what to look for — and feel for — when it came to breast self-exams. “I had medical training, so I did my own exams and I felt something, but I ignored it for a month or two,” says Souto.

That was 13 years ago and she was living in Germantown, Md. She is now coordinator of communicable disease for Rockland County’s Department of Health and lives in South Nyack.

Maria Souto, who survived breast cancer, at her South Nyack home. (Xavier Mascareñas/The Journal News)

“I thought it might be a cyst or related to my period,” Souto says. “I had ignored it, thinking ‘It’s going to go away.’ But then I realized it wasn’t going away and I woke up one day and I had a black-and-blue mark. People usually say you have no symptoms, but I guess it was an opening for me to go see the doctor.”

Souto’s surgeon should have known better.

When a mammogram showed something, a biopsy was ordered, but it came back negative. “I think the first surgeon I used just didn’t go in properly,” Souto says. “He went in a different way and never reached the cancerous cells.”

It was February 1998.

Cleared by the biopsy, she went on with her life, working at Georgetown University Hospital.

Months later, bruising again, Souto had another mammogram, another biopsy, a different surgeon. “One of the doctors I worked with was my primary care, so my stuff would come through there and the girls would let me look and make sure everything was fine,” she says. “One day, one of the nurses said ‘Maria, your pathology report is back.’ And I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ And I looked at it and I cursed out loud. And the nurse said, ‘What?’ And I said ‘I have breast cancer.'”

It was May 1998. Souto had just turned 40. She had stage 2 breast cancer, with one lymph node — the one closest to the breast — positive for cancer.

She had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.

Now, Souto has a peace about her, as if being in her presence might possibly lower your blood pressure. She speaks softly, deliberately. Here are 10 things Maria Souto took away from her fight with breast cancer.

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Helping Hands: The best advice for what to do — and not to do — comes from those battling breast cancer themselves

Journal News editor Karen Croke reported on the best ways to help loved ones when they’re diagnosed with breast cancer, as part of our ongoing coverage for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Here’s the story as it appeared in print on Oct. 23:

“What can I do for you?”

Sounds exactly like what a cancer patient would want to hear, doesn’t it? Turns out, these are the last words those battling breast cancer want to hear come out of the mouths of well-intentioned friends and family.

“This sounds terrible, but it was a little annoying when someone would say, ‘what can I do for you?,’ ” says Stacey Sypko of Patterson. The 45-year-old mom of two boys, now 5 and 7, was diagnosed in May 2009.

(Photo illustration by Xavier Mascareñas / The Journal News )

What would have helped, she says, is friends taking a can-do attitude rather than hanging back and waiting for guidance.

“If you want to do something, cook something and drop it off — great. But don’t make me tell you how to help me. It’s hard to ask for help actually.”

It can be as equally difficult for those supporting a loved one with breast cancer, and that’s a large group. According to the American Cancer Society, three out of every four American families will have at least one family member diagnosed with cancer. And most of us are confused about what to say, what to do, and how to help.

Those battling breast cancer have the best advice: Offer to cook meals, walk the dog, help with child care or give rides to treatment, they say. Be specific; saying “let me know if you need anything” won’t do much good if a person is shy about asking for help.

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Chemo Day 37: Port-a-Princess?

Yes, finding veins has been a struggle, sadly, even after having had good veins for blood donation all my life. But I really don’t think I WANT a port. 🙁

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