A mammogram detected cancer in Ruth Mendoza's right breast in July, 1989. Ten days later, the breast was gone.
She did not seek counseling, explore her options, or get a second opinion.
"I was ignorant," she says.
In the years since her first mastectomy, the Lancaster woman has dedicated herself to making sure other women, and men, aren't faced with the same terrifying ignorance.
Mendoza is one of the founders of Ladies of Courage, breast cancer survivors educating the public about the disease.
Boxes in the foyer of Mendoza's home brim over with pamphlets about early detection, cancer facilities, any material Mendoza can get to hand out to the Antelope Valley community.
One woman in eight will be diagnosed in her lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute. And 1,000 men nationally are diagnosed each year, the institute says.
Mendoza rattles off statistics like she's reciting her children's birthdays.
"Since 1960, 950,000 persons have died of breast cancer; 48% of those were in the last 10 years.
"World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm combined didn't lose that many people," she said. "Somebody has to get a little concerned about these numbers."
Ladies of Courage, a Lancaster-based group with about 20 members, hopes to raise concern and the level of education about the disease during October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Throughout the month, the group is sponsoring seminars ranging from nutrition to breast self-examination training.
The group won the 1992 Sponsors Award during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month for its programs last October. It had only been in existence since February. Since then, the group has continued to give lectures and programs about the disease.
"I take it as my responsibility to help women and educate women about breast cancer," Mendoza said.
Mendoza changed from a frightened and confused patient to an empowered and informed friend to those facing breast cancer, said Susan Broemmer, a radiologic technologist who has known Mendoza since her 1989 biopsy.
"Now she's very learned and she's wonderful about passing that knowledge on," said Broemmer, who works at Antelope Valley Hospital Medical Center. "She's been great support for women with breast cancer. The more educated you are, the better decisions you can make."
"Mine was an issue of no information at all," Mendoza said. "My issue is ignorance, an upbringing that says, 'You're a woman, you have no rights. Don't ask so many questions. Just let your doctor take care of you.' "
On the anniversary of her mastectomy, prompted by a friend in the medical profession, Mendoza called 1-800-4-CANCER, the National Cancer Institute's information service.
She discovered she should have been having blood tests every month. Within two days she had piles of information on breast cancer.
"Ruth is like a walking encyclopedia. Anything you want to know about breast cancer, treatment, new drugs, she just is extremely current on," said Valarie Beardsley, therapist with After Breast Cancer, an American Cancer Society support group for women who have had surgery. "She is just a real upbeat and inspirational person."
When doctors told Mendoza that her remaining breast might become cancerous, she investigated her options over the course of a year with a medical team. Last year, with the blessing of her husband and two daughters, she had the breast removed and her upper body reconstructed.
She wants other women to learn their options and about the disease.
"We want to let women who are out there know they can call us to help them walk through the steps we've already taken," Mendoza said. "It's our privilege to do this."
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