By Kathy Day
Lili Halmos-Myers learned the hard way what cancer’s all about.
Now, the Rancho Santa Fe woman, who was diagnosed in 2005 – a year after doctors told her not to worry about the ping-pong-ball-sized lump she had – was recently named “Survivor of the Year” by Susan G. Komen for the Cure San Diego. The organization also appointed her as the bicultural spokesperson for its Race for the Cure, which is set for Nov 4.
In 2004, she said, “I heard exactly what I wanted to hear – ‘Don’t worry’ – and I accepted that.”
But when she went back for her annual exam at Santa Monica’s Breast Center, the lump was the size of a tennis ball and she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer – a very aggressive form of the disease. Ten days later she had it removed, but when she went home after surgery she had a staph infection. Then it was on to chemotherapy.
Now, getting ready for her seventh Komen 3-Day walk and running the Race for the Cure for the first time a year ago, she’s in the forefront of Komen’s efforts to reach out to Hispanic women.
Some have asked why she’s doing it, noting that she “doesn’t look like a foreigner,” she said.
Fluent in Spanish, as is her husband Michael D. Myers, she says she is not just bilingual, but is “truly bicultural.”
Her parents left Hungary in 1947-48 and “via very different routes, ended up in South America,” Myers said. They met in Chile, which is where she was born.
“My parents spoke Hungarian, I grew up in a Spanish environment and was sent to a private French school,” she recalled, adding that she perfected her English after moving to the U.S.
Her husband was born and raised in Cleveland, but he traveled a lot, and he, too, is fluent in French, was fluent in Japanese and went to law school in Mexico. He is also fluent in Spanish.
“When we met, it was not just the languages we had in common,” she said. “I told him, ‘You understand my music, my foods, my way of being.”
Now that he is semi-retired and their children – Monique, who will be 26 in May and is a law student at the University of San Diego and living at home, and Alexander, 23, who is working for a local startup company – are making their way in the world, Myers said she has more time to focus on charitable work.
“We are entering a time of our lives where we have time to give back, she said.
So when Laura Farmer, executive director of Susan G. Komen San Diego chapter, asked her to take on the spokesperson’s role, she said, she embraced it.
“I’m being given the opportunity to pay it forward and to challenge the emotion of cancer that stays with you.”
Talking about facing cancer and what follows, she cited Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong Manifesto: “Cancer may leave your body, but it never leaves your life.”
One night after her surgery, she said, she and her husband were reflecting on their situation.
“That’s when the reality hits,” she noted. “We’re very blessed. He and I have worked very hard; we have the best doctors, the best insurance, the best medication.”
As they talked, she said, they wondered what was happening to others in San Diego, particularly in the Hispanic community and with other women who are underinsured or can’t afford all the tests or the doctors.
“It boggled my mind,” she said. “Who pays the rent or takes care of their children. What if they can’t take time off from work for treatments?”
Hispanic women, in particular, she noted, face very high mortality rates from breast cancer, although not necessarily more breast cancer than other groups.
Many are diagnosed later, she said. “Some of it is cultural; some of it is education about breast cancer.”
Because she is comfortable in both cultures, she said, she feels she can bring a special touch to her role as spokeswoman for the Race for the Cure, Myers said.
She will be helping to raise money and to advocate on behalf of women, as well as working with the media and at events like the recent National City health fair. There, Komen offered free mammograms and pap smears to women over 40 who hadn’t had one in the past year or those under 40 with a family history of cancer.
Myers said she especially likes the fact that 75 percent of the money raised during Susan G. Komen San Diego events stays in the county and it is the only organization that provides free services for women at every step of the cancer journey, from mammograms to meal delivery.
The remaining 25 percent goes to research into causes and cures for the disease.
“A lot of the new medications are funded or touched by Komen grants,” she added.
Already, she has been interviewed by Televisa, and looks forward to doing more to get the word out about Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure.
And she knows she’ll be doing it with the support of her husband who she calls her “knight in shining armor” and her son, who did the 3-Day with her in 2011, and daughter who shows up along the course between classes to cheer her on.