Rica’s story, one year later

In case you missed it, here’s the story that ran Monday in Life & Style:

Treatment over, blogger Rica Mendes looks ahead to the next chapter of life

Last October, Rica Mendes shared her fight against breast cancer in a monthlong series of blog posts on LoHud.com.

A year later, she is relieved to be cancer-free.

But the difficulties continue for Mendes, a 38-year-old single mother of two who lost her job and is battling with insurance companies as she wades through piles of unpaid bills.

Recently she learned that the hospital where she was treated has a “financial aid department,” but that you need to apply for Medicaid and be turned down before they’ll even consider your case.

The “financial ramifications” of being a cancer patient are clearly among her greatest challenges, says Mendes.

“COBRA alone is so outrageous right now, it’s higher than my mortgage,” she says. “And God help me if I tried to get private insurance.”

As if all that weren’t enough, Mendes’ mother was also diagnosed recently with breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy two weeks ago and will need six weeks of radiation. Mendes is BRCA positive, which means she has a genetic predisposition to the disease, but her mother is not. “Her cancer can’t be any more different than mine,” says Mendes. “That’s how wacky this disease is.” Her mother’s prognosis, she adds, is excellent.

Mendes’ own life changed abruptly last year, just a month after her 37th birthday.

In July, she learned from a mammogram that she had invasive early-stage breast cancer, then found out she had the gene. In August 2011, she had a double mastectomy. In September, she started four months of chemotherapy. In February, her chest expanders were replaced with breast implants.

Her last surgical procedure was in May, when she had her nipples reconstructed. This past July, doctors finally said she could resume exercising.

For Mendes, who’d been an avid cyclist — and who remains a leader in Livestrong, the cancer-support organization founded by Lance Armstrong — getting active again has done wonders for her spirit.

She started by canoeing around nearby Lake Kitchawan every morning, and this summer, she took part in an adventure camp for cancer survivors, overcoming her fear of heights as she went rock climbing in the Colorado Rockies.

Her body is slowly springing back, too. Mendes lost her hair during chemotherapy — in one of her video posts last October, she cried as she held a clump of hair that came out on camera — but now she’s got a head full of curls.

“I look like a really sad Little Orphan Annie,” she says with a laugh. “If it was 1978, I’d be fine.”

It’s her ability to laugh at herself that’s helped pull her though, says Mendes. Welcoming her “twins” — the new breast implants — with a “booby shower” at her home this spring is a case in point, she says.

“I am very grateful for my sense of humor, as macabre and twisted as it is.”

She’s also gained perspective, she says, and has, quite literally, taken time to smell the roses she planted in the garden outside her South Salem home. Recently she put up a hammock, where she relaxes with a cocktail and does absolutely nothing.

While her previous job as Web operations manager for a Connecticut start-up had provided a steady income, it also meant she had to deal with crises late into the night, says Mendes.

Life was becoming increasingly hectic.

“Cancer is one of those things where, not only does it grab you by the shoulders and slap you across the face and say, ‘Hi, I’m here,’ but when you’ve survived it and go back into real life — unless your job was your passion and you were enjoying everything about your life prior to that — you just sit back and say, ‘Why did I put myself through this for so many years?’” she says. “Or ‘Why do I put with this BS?’”

These days, she is working as a temp and hoping to be offered a job that is permanent. Her friends at Livestrong have remained a strong support system, she says. And it’s very likely another adventure is in the works.

“In a sense I feel like nothing is stopping me now except for what’s in my own head,” she says.

What about women who find themselves newly diagnosed with breast cancer?

Don’t hide, urges Mendes.

“Reach out to an organization like Livestrong, because if you keep it pent up, if you don’t get it off your chest — even if you’ve been the biggest introvert your entire life — it’s going to eat at you,” she says.

“You’ve already got cancer eating you alive. Why let stress and emotion do it too?”

To read more, go to LoHud.com/breastcancer, where you will find links to Mendes’ other blogs.

Linda Lombroso

Linda Lombroso has been a staff writer at The Journal News since 1997.