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.”

Mendes has remained positive throughout, despite facing obstacles that would test anyone’s patience.

The late-October storm left her without heat, water and electricity for days.

In early November, an infection landed her in Stamford Hospital for more than a week.

Finally back at home, Mendes is hopeful she’ll get the green light to resume chemotherapy this week — and plans to continue reporting on her experiences as a patient and breast-cancer survivor.

Our blog project ended Oct. 31, but Mendes continues to tell her story at www.ricalivestrong.blogspot.com. Mascareñas shot the photo you see here of Mendes at the hospital — where she welcomed him, in typical open-arms fashion.

Mendes quotes Lance Armstrong that cancer survivors have “the obligation of the cured” — and says she’s only doing her part to help out.

“If I can make the process a little less scary and let people understand what to expect and what not to expect, and get them better prepared if they ever face it, I think I’ve done my job.”

(Photo by Xavier Mascareñas / The Journal News )

Liz Johnson

Liz Johnson is the food editor of The Journal News and LoHud.com, for which she's won awards from the New York News Publishers Association, the Association of Food Journalists and the Associated Press. She lives in Nyack with her husband and daughter on a tiny suburban lot they call their farm — with fruit trees, an herb garden, and a yardful of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, shallots, cucumbers, zucchini, radishes, cabbage, peppers, Brussels sprouts and carrots and four big blueberry bushes.