[00:00:00] Adam Walker: From Susan G Komen, this is Real Pink, a podcast exploring real stories, struggles, and triumphs related to breast cancer. We’re taking the conversation from the doctor’s office to your living room. This episode of The Real Pink Podcast is brought to you by AstraZeneca. AstraZeneca is leading a revolution in oncology, with the ambition to provide cures for cancer in every form, following the science to understand cancer and all its complexities to discover, develop, and deliver life changing medicines to patients. Learn more at AstraZenecaUS.com.
Welcome to the Komen Health Equity Revolution Podcast series. Each month we invite in patients, community organizations, healthcare partners, researchers, and policy advocates to discuss strategies and solutions that drive the health equity revolution forward for multiple populations experiencing breast health inequities.
Sergio Andres Mendoza lost the love of his life. Sarah Fernandez Mendoza to metastatic breast Cancer in 2017. Since then, he has worked tirelessly to honor Sarah’s legacy while raising their two young children, giving back to Komen in multiple ways and providing inspiration for other breast cancer caregivers who are going through what he experienced. Sergio is here today to talk about caregiver support and how he supports Komen’s mission to end breast cancer. Sergio, welcome to the show.
[00:01:34] Sergio Mendoza: Hi Adam, I’m so happy to be here and join you in the fight against breast cancer. Thank you so much for having me.
[00:01:41] Adam Walker: I’m excited to have you and this is so important. I love talking with caregivers and getting your unique perspective. And so let’s start with kind of your story and Sarah’s story. Tell us about Sarah and how she was diagnosed.
[00:01:55] Sergio Mendoza: So Sarah and I were a young couple and She actually found a lump when she was pregnant with our first child. She was 34 years old, she found a lump. She went to her primary physician. They said, it’s no big deal. It’s probably an inflamed milk duct. She didn’t feel comfortable with it and actually went and sought out a mammogram, was able to do that, got a biopsy. It turned out that it was breast cancer. We had to wait for the birth of our child to be able to have the surgery subsequently. And they did find that there was some of the breast cancer in one of her sentinel nodes. So, but we went, she went on chemo soon after and that was in 2012. So my son now Sergio is, 11 years old. We were really lucky at that time though. And I think there’s probably similar programs today. But at that time, the Livestrong Foundation, which was associated with Lance Armstrong, was helping subsidize the fertilization and extraction of eggs for young women that were diagnosed with breast cancer. And it turned out to be great because a few years later when Sarah’s disease progressed and we found it in her bone, we were able to have another child and that was really, even though the doctors had said, go ahead, go get pregnant, have a 2nd child. And that was a really big decision for us, but Sarah was a lawyer and Sarah just had this intuition and it was a really incredible story because the day that we found out that the surrogate, surrogacy is a process and you just have to believe and you just have to, believe that the outcomes will be great.
And it’s really challenging, but I’m so glad we went through with it. But the day that we found out that our surrogate was pregnant was the day that Sarah had a major surgery because her cancer had progressed and eaten more than one of her vertebrae. And she was in surgery all day, and when she came out of surgery, I was able to tell her, this last fertilized egg, the surrogate is pregnant and Anais was born ten months later, nine months later. So, that was her story. She eventually died from metastatic disease in 2017.
[00:04:22] Adam Walker: Well, I appreciate you sharing that. And so, walk me through what that was like being a caregiver to your wife, but also taking care of your two young children, what helped you support her? What helped you stay strong through that period?
[00:04:36] Sergio Mendoza: Yeah. So the mantra for us was two parts. One is, was her belief. So she lived life as though she was not sick and I conspired to believe that too, and to live life that way. So, Sarah, even before her diagnosis, lived life fully. From waking up in the morning, till going to sleep late at night, and enjoying life as much as she possibly could.
And, we just continued this. As a caregiver, one of my mantras was, 1 day at a time. So it’s very easy, and, this is true, this was true for Sarah as well and women that are diagnosed, it’s very easy to extrapolate and think about the future and worry and be concerned and it’s an overwhelming burden to carry with you and to relive every day. So, really the best advice that I had, that was given to me was one day at a time. And when you’re looking at things one day at a time, you focus on things like comfort. Is her pillow in the right place? Is the water in the glass that she likes?
What can I do to, if she does have an appetite, to give her the food that she’ll enjoy the most. So you focus on the present and the immediacy of comfort and it’s empowering to be able to focus on that day and to not carry the burden of the future with you and just, live that with every day. So, I forget about the future and just focus on that one day.
[00:06:22] Adam Walker: That’s really beautiful. I love that mentality and I can imagine how it would really help give you a lot of strength during each of those days, as you’re going through it. And so I understand that you started attending a support group with your son after Sarah passed away, how did attending the support group help you mourn her loss?
[00:06:40] Sergio Mendoza: So, Sarah, there’s some deaths that are sudden and unexpected. Sarah had a decline. So, as a parent, I was able to ask others for advice and, even professional psychologists, what I should do with my children. And one of the things that they recommended was a group, probably located all over the nation and hopefully all over the world, but it was, it’s peer based grief. And it’s not counseling. It’s not therapy. It’s really peer based. It’s an organization that I’m now part of. It’s called the children’s bereavement center and it offers free weekly attendance online nationwide. And the most amazing thing there about that particular group was that I went for my children and my Children were put together in a group of other Children, their same age and every single person there had lost their favorite person in the world. And 1 of the biggest challenges with being a parent or a child and having lost an adult, we saw, they, I can’t imagine how many children are in the situation because of COVID, but they’re different.
Their life is different. And they’re, they’re looked at as other. And in this group, in this peer support group, the most important thing in their life, they have in common with all the children that are in that group. And it really, we went, every single Monday, we attended every single Monday for years, and I actually lost my sister a year later to a different type of cancer, a rare cancer.And the only way that I could be prepared for the death of my only sister a year later was because I had learned to talk about death, and I had learned how to live with that grief and that mourning and that loss. And I went for my children, and this particular group, the Children’s Bereavement Center, you also as a parent, so they put you together with parents as peers, and you talk about how to parent this child that has lost their favorite person in the world.
And there’s people there that are at all stages of their journey, and they know exactly what you’ve been through and the stories and that peer sharing really did a lot for me. So I went for my son and daughter, and I ended up getting a huge amount of benefit from it as well. So I definitely recommend it. I think that people die every day and most of us have, we see loss and there’s many people that have lost and to create the space and the opportunity to grieve is really important. And I feel like a lot of people would benefit from being able to have a healthy relationship with their loss, as opposed to hiding it or not thinking about it.
[00:09:53] Adam Walker: No, that’s a great point, and I really appreciate you making that point. So, obviously, you’ve continued to be a caregiver to your children. You’re continuing now to care for them. How has that changed since Sarah passed away? And how’s everyone doing?
[00:10:08] Sergio Mendoza: So it’s really interesting, actually. So Sid, who was five, and Anais was two when Sarah died. He had been able to have a really amazing relationship with Sarah. Anais was very young, and she was sick most of her life. But what’s interesting and a real blessing with children is that they’re like their parents. So I actually see Sarah in my children more and more every day as they grow. And, at this point, I’ve known my children longer than I knew my wife and it’s a really interesting, it’s really interesting way to look at the world that, I’m very lucky that I do have these children that are embody her and her energy and her spirit, but it’s just very clear to me that she’s not gone. She’s very much a part of our lives. They are, thank God, a lot like her and I chose her out of all of the people in the world. So it’s really nice to have her presence with us every day.
[00:11:16] Adam Walker: Yeah, it’s beautiful. That’s beautiful. And you’re right. Our children are very much the embodiment of us.
[00:11:22] Sergio Mendoza: And the other thing is. I have lots of help. I’m so lucky and my parents really helped me. My in-laws are an active part of our life as well. It’s hard to be a parent with two parents and lots of love and lots of time. And, I’m one parent, but it’s still hard. Every child needs love. These kids are the same, some people think they need more love; I think all these kids need love. But I’ve been really blessed to have a lot of help from my family and my in-laws and my community.
[00:11:55] Adam Walker: That’s right. Community is just so important. So let’s talk a little bit about your volunteer work. So you’re the chair of the executive leadership committee for the 2023 Miami Fort Lauderdale More Than Pink Walk. Why is it important to you to be involved in fundraising and raising awareness for your local community and particularly for the Hispanic Latino population?
[00:12:15] Sergio Mendoza: Yeah. So when Sarah got her first diagnosis, we were very private about it, but when the disease came back, she decided to share her story. And I was amazed at how many women she helped, because there’s so many women that are in the same situation and scared out of their minds and to have someone that can just be a peer again and walk them through it. She helped many women with their breast cancer diagnoses. When Sarah died, it would have been much easier for me to forget about breast cancer.
And I had a friend who after her death said, “Hey, you know what? You should do something with breast cancer.” And I’m glad she did because she gave me the confidence to continue the fight against breast cancer. So for me, I lost my wife to metastatic disease but I don’t want to lose anyone else. I don’t want to lose my daughter, my friends, my mom. I don’t want to lose anybody. Susan G Komen represents I think the biggest opportunity for saving more women’s lives and it goes into this health equity. So metastatic disease has, the prognosis for metastatic disease has not changed in a while, but I do believe that bringing the current standard of care to a broader population, including Hispanics, Latins, in south Florida and Miami, we have a huge Latin population. I’m Latin. My wife is Latin, my daughter’s Latin and just being able to, and bringing the current standard of care to more people is about normalizing a breast cancer diagnosis. It’s about saying, “Hey, it’s okay to take time out of your day to get a mammogram.” Which, an early diagnosis is your most likely that you have the highest likelihood of survival if you have an early diagnosis.
So it’s okay to get a mammogram. It’s okay if you get a mammogram to find breast cancer. It is okay to fight that breast cancer. It’s okay to support this woman who is in the fight. It’s okay for her husband, her children, her parents, her company, her workplace, her church, her community around her to support this woman and breast cancer.
And for me, Komen does many amazing things. They’re funding world class research. They help women with access to a lot of these services. But the biggest thing that Komen does is that it makes a press kit they’re really trying to make a breast cancer diagnosis normal and something that a community can support. And we have a lot of, especially in the Latin community, and especially because this disease affects mostly women, they’re, it’s hard to make breast cancer a priority and the fight against a breast cancer diagnosis a priority. And I think that Komen is an incredible leader in the entire breast cancer world, but in this particular thing, they’re doing exceptional work.
The other thing that I think they’re doing that’s amazing is that they’re pioneering work on young cancer, young women. Cancer diagnoses for young women, under 40s. And we’ve been so unsuccessful in changing prognosis for breast cancer without early diagnosis. That this patient population, I’m excited and I’m optimistic and the same way that there are new discoveries and new treatments that are coming out every month, the longer you survive, the more opportunities there are for something to help your particular disease.
But I’m also excited about this particular focus in research, because maybe something will come out of it that will change our knowledge of breast cancer. And Komens leadership in community building and making breast cancer normal and, target and now with this new movement for breast cancer in young patients, I just think they’re doing incredible work and I’m proud to be a part of that in our local community.
[00:16:31] Adam Walker: Yeah, that’s fantastic. And well, and speaking of, being a part of more work, so I understand you also founded the Pink Key Society to continue Sarah’s legacy. Can you tell us more about the mission of the Pink Key Society and how you’ve been involved in using that to give back to Komen?
[00:16:47] Sergio Mendoza: Yeah, so, like many men, I don’t pay attention to charity, didn’t pay attention to charities or philanthropy. And my wife Sarah, was not like that at all. She was a mercenary charity person. She was on the board of many charities. She helped anyone that asked for help and it was really her, this approach that she had. It’s much easier to not pay attention and not care and not try to make a change in the world and that wasn’t her approach at all.
And I’m trying to mirror that and it’s been incredible because you see the change. So Pink Key Society is, it’s focused on a change in breast cancer and in joining the fight against breast cancer. Its biggest impact to this point has been with Komen. We’ve raised more than a hundred thousand dollars in the last few years for Komen. And little by little, we keep making more of an impact. So, that’s the Pink Key Society.
[00:17:45] Adam Walker: Wow. I love that. Okay. And then, and so as if you weren’t busy enough, I understand you also design cocktail rings in Sarah’s memory with a portion of the proceeds being donated to Komen. You tell me more about what inspired you to start that and tell me all about that, actually.
[00:18:00] Sergio Mendoza: Yeah. So, with Sarah’s diagnosis and when we knew my life was going to change with her loss I just, I needed to change my life and I needed to change my life in a way that allowed me to be there for my children. I have always been fascinated by jewelry, my grandmothers really just helped me develop a love and a passion for jewelry. And what happened, though, is that I thought that I was going into jewelry as a designer of pretty things. And what happened was that as I got into jewelry, I actually gifted rings to the first thousand women that had my rings. And as I sat with these women and talk to them about my designs and my collection I learned not just about how to design about fingers, but I learned one of these things about women that is directly relevant to our breast cancer problem, which is that women have a really hard time prioritizing themselves. So, on a given day, a woman would prioritize her children, her partner, her parents, her friends over herself. And it’s very difficult for them to make the time, for example, to say, well, instead of going to my child’s sporting event, I’m going to get a mammogram and do something for myself. And, for me,my approach in my jewelry is really about trying to help support women see themselves the way that I see them. So the words that always come out is that these women, all women, are powerful, independent, and beautiful. And, That’s the way they are, and it’s not, they don’t need to be the CEO of something to do it.
They don’t need to do anything tomorrow. They’ve already done amazing things. You wake up in the morning, you’re a great parent. You go to work, you’re an incredible executive. At night, you’re a partner for your partner. And, men don’t do any of those things. And well, or sometimes they don’t do any of those well. And for me, that deserves to be honored already for the things that they’ve already done. So for me, my designs, I hope remind a woman of her favorite version of herself. And I hope that she does that by honoring herself. And for me, a lot of my designs are being a reminder of a woman’s power, their independence and their beauty.
[00:20:36] Adam Walker: Sergio, I really appreciate, first of all, I appreciate all the work that you’re doing, all of the things you’re doing to improve the lives of people and families is so important and it’s really inspiring. I guess my final question to you is, do you have any advice for the other caregivers that are out there, whether they’re giving care to children or to sick loved ones?
[00:20:56] Sergio Mendoza: Yeah. So, my main advice is one day at a time. You have children, you’re fortunate enough to have children, they need love, focus on them and love them. The other thing that I think is a really big deal with Komen as well, is that it includes caregivers and it includes the people that support those that are fighting the battle.
And, one woman affects so many people and there’s so many people a part of her life. And all of these people want to show her that they love her and support her. And to be able to have not just a family but also, you know The people that work at the imaging centers the people that do the chemo the nurses The ones that help with the hair and the wigs and these accessory services, you know the physical therapists these people are all a part of the breast cancer community and they are all there and you know, you’re not alone, it’s not just you. If you have someone that’s going through the exact same thing, find them, if you’re comfortable speaking with them about it, back to finding people that are in the same position as you that maybe you can decompress from. I had a family that were aunt and uncle to my children, and I used to go to their house and just let them have my kids and I just flopped down on a sofa and you just, I needed to recharge and just, and have that strength. That there are so many people when you share and when you tell, ask for help, people sometimes that don’t even know you are willing to help if you just ask. I’m always impressed and amazed with people in general and how generous and loving and wonderful they are to us when in this fight and in general.
[00:22:41] Adam Walker: That’s right. That’s right. Well, that’s good. That’s good advice. Well, Sergio, thank you so much again for what you’re doing. Thank you for joining us on the show today. Thank you for sharing your story and just for all the wonderful things you’re doing in the world.
[00:22:52] Sergio Mendoza: I’m so happy to have been here with you, Adam. Thank you so much. And I’m excited to be your friend.
[00:22:58] Adam Walker: And thank you for joining another episode of the Komen Health Equity Revolution Podcast Series. We will continue to galvanize the breast cancer community that support multiple populations experiencing breast health inequities to advance and achieve breast health equity for all.
To learn more about health equity at Komen Please visit Komen.org /healthequity. Thanks for listening to Real Pink, a weekly podcast by Susan G Komen. For more episodes, visit RealPink.Komen.org. For more on breast cancer, visit Komen.org. Make sure to check out @SusanGKomen on social media. I’m your host Adam. You can find me on Twitter @AJWalker or on my blog adamjwalker.com.