The first Thanksgiving after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Patricia Almendarez was asked what she had to be grateful for that year. She replied that she’d been blessed because she had cancer.
Sixteen years later as she goes through her second battle against breast cancer, Almendarez continues to see it as a mixed blessing.
In those years, she’s seen family, friends and acquaintances unite in support of her and others who have been diagnosed with cancer. In the six years since Mission Regional Medical Center initiated the Mission Pink 5K walk to raise awareness for breast cancer survivors, Almendarez has seen her team grow from 25 people to 100. And five times she’s taken home the top fundraising award. This year the award was cut from the program and she jokingly speculated it’s because organizers got tired of giving it to her.
There’s no secret to her fundraising. She knows a lot of people who own businesses or are doctors and lawyers. She asks them for whatever they can give, and some donations are small and others are big.
It chokes her up to talk about the support.
“My husband says,” she started, stopping to collect herself, “My husband says everybody loves you and they want to help … They’re not giving the money to me. They’re giving the money to Mission Pink because of me.”
This year’s Mission Pink walk is set for Saturday, Oct. 3. Evelyn Saenz, spokeswoman for Mission Regional Medical Center, said organizers set a goal this year of 3,500 participants and she believes they’ll meet it.
A quarter of the money raised through the walk goes to provide free mammograms for women in need in the area. The first four years a percentage was donated to the Susan G. Komen organization for research (nearly $20,000 was donated), but Saenz said in recent years the money has been used to directly provide services for women in the area.
Online registration for the walk has closed, but people wanting to participate will be able to register onsite may do so starting at 6:30 a.m. outside of the hospital. The presentation, featuring survivor Sandra Aguero, is set to start at 7:30, and the walk is scheduled to start at 8 a.m. For more information, visit missionpink.org.
Almendarez said she truly believes in the cause.
She was first diagnosed on Feb. 5, 1999, after finding a hard lump in her breast during a self-examination. It felt like a rock in he breast, she said. At the time, her youngest was not quite six months old and Almendarez made an appointment to see the doctor the next day.
She said she could see the look of concern on the doctor’s face as he checked her out, and he asked the nurse to schedule a mammogram as soon as possible. When the nurse returned and said the soonest date possible was in April, he went and called the center himself and scheduled Almendarez as a walk-in appointment for the following Monday.
The doctor’s urgency convinced Almendarez she had cancer. She went straight home without picking up her girls and started crying as soon as she walked through the door.
“That day I went to sleep. I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore, and I woke up, and it was an amazing feeling because I truly, truly felt as if I had been held by God himself,” Almendarez said. “It’s something that I’ll never forget, and I woke up with such a peace and with the strength that I needed that I said, ‘Whatever happens, I’m going to be fine. God is with me.’”
Almendarez underwent a radical mastectomy, which removed the muscle as well as the breast tissue. Then, she had eight rounds of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation.
To commemorate the one-year anniversary after her surgery, she and her husband walked from their home to the shrine at Our Lady of San Juan. They went again when she finished her treatments.
Her experience 16 years later was different. Late last year, she started having a hard time catching her breath. She thought it was an upper respiratory infection, and the Wednesday before Thanksgiving she got antibiotics to treat it.
But by that Saturday night she came down with a non-stop cough. She missed work Monday, Tuesday and Friday of that week before ending up at the emergency room. They ran tests, including a chest X-ray and a mammogram, and everything came back OK.
Then she went back to the ER in December. Again, all tests indicated nothing was wrong.
“They asked, ‘How long have you been depressed?’ and I started crying. I said, ‘I’m not depressed. I’m scared. Something’s going on,’” Almendarez said.
They gave her breathing exercises and more antibiotics.
At that time, the doctor who originally treated her made an appointment with a pulmonologist for Jan. 5.
“It was a whole month, and I swear to you that last three and a half weeks every night I would say, ‘Please, dear God, let me get to Jan. 5,’ because by the end of the day I just didn’t feel well,” Almendarez said. “I couldn’t breathe. I was exhausted. I just couldn’t catch my breath.”
The pulmonologist checked her heart, looked for blockages and blood clots and found nothing. He decided to open her up to find out what was going on inside and scheduled the procedure for mid-February. One morning the week before, Almendarez walked from her bedroom to her car in the garage. Sitting in the car she was panting and knew something wasn’t right. She went back inside and her husband took her to the emergency room once again, where they gave her oxygen and ran more tests.
They kept her there until the procedure scheduled just a few days later. That’s when the doctor found tiny cancerous tumors on her lung. They were so small, doctors wouldn’t have to take a piece of the lung, and they were the same mutation as the cancer she had 16 years prior, so it still counts as breast cancer.
The first time she started treatment was March 16, 1999, one day before her 36th birthday, and the second time was March 24, one week after her 52nd birthday. In those 16 years, she said cancer treatment has been greatly advanced. In her first round of treatments, she felt sick most of the time, only feeling OK the three or four days before her next treatment. This time, she only felt sick the first day.
Still, Almendarez has been so tired, she only recently started to cook again. Her daughters – Veronica, Aiisa and Mary – have been picking up the slack, Almendarez said, and she’s grateful.
“My brother this time around reminded me of something I said, and I always say … rely on people,” she said. “As an adult, you never want to have to ask anybody for anything.”
There’s been a steady stream of family and friends providing dinners for the family, so much so that they have to schedule them out sometimes. And members of her church have been quick to pray for her. A neighbor said she didn’t know what she could do for her, but volunteered to come wash dishes whenever needed and water the lawn.
“It takes a village,” Almendarez said. “I am tremendously blessed. One thing you find out is you’re not alone.”