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NMSU nursing student, cancer survivor co-chairs annual fundraiser

As Tough Enough to Wear Pink's newest - and youngest - co-chair, Lynda Garcia has more than her share of experience with breast cancer.

After fighting her own battle against breast cancer, NMSU nursing student Lynda Garcia is the new co-chair of Tough Enough to Wear Pink. (photo by Darren Phillips)

It's not just because she's a nursing student who's done her homework on the annual fundraiser, or because her sorority, Delta Gamma, helped organize some of last year's events.

It's because Garcia, at the age of 19, was diagnosed with breast cancer her sophomore year of college.

"I knew to look out for lumps, I was aware of my family history," she said. Her mother battled breast cancer when Garcia was in middle school, so self-examination was routine. "I was taking a shower and swiped over my chest. I felt a bump and thought 'Oh, my goodness.'"

Worried, Garcia shared her concern with some of her sorority sisters, who urged her to get checked. As the end of the semester approached, she saw a Las Cruces doctor who suspected she had a fibroadenoma, a benign tumor of the breast not caused by cancer.

Still uncertain about what she'd felt, Garcia spent winter break in Los Lunas with her family, and went through tests that confirmed her fears.

"My doctor (in Los Lunas) actually had a fibroadenoma, and she said it didn't feel normal," she explained. "I'm glad she checked. We did the tests, and they came back positive for cancer. It was very, very scary. But, I've learned a lot from it. It helped refocus everything, brought me back down to earth.

"In February 2010, I started eight rounds of chemotherapy, and I went every two week. I lost my hair, I was really upset, but I got over it," she said.

That summer, Garcia underwent a double mastectomy with reconstruction, and radiation therapy from August to October.

"It was a lot to handle," she added. She found support from friends and her mom, Donna. "She had been there before, so she knew what to expect. She told me to keep my head up. I've always been taught that everything happens for a reason, and if I was going to get through something, I had to have a positive outlook about it. I try to take the day as it comes and go with it."

She said she's also thankful for the support she felt from the handful of people she confided in.

Now in remission, Garcia said she's maintained that "take the day as it comes attitude." The cancer ordeal, she added, has helped her relate to clients and given her a better understanding as she goes through clinicals in her senior year of nursing school. She anticipates graduating in May 2014 and then returning to Albuquerque.

"I'm just trying to get through this semester," Garcia said. "I want to get my master's and doctorate eventually. I want to focus on pediatrics and/or oncology."

She's also settling into her new role as co-chair of this year's NMSU Aggies Are Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign, along with fellow co-chairs Laura Conniff, Pat Sisbarro and Magellia Boston. She's already familiar with the fundraiser, having participated in the fashion show as a student representative last year.

This year's campaign at NMSU begins with a Pink Kickoff Monday, Oct. 14, on the NMSU Horseshoe, and continues with an array of events, including a Pink Luncheon (Garcia's favorite), a fashion show, a movie night and other fundraising events.

Proceeds from the event benefit Cowboys for Cancer Research. The money raised by the organization is then placed into endowment funds at NMSU and the University of New Mexico. NMSU Aggies Are Tough Enough to Wear Pink is the biggest contributor to Cowboys for Cancer Research.

In three years, the organizations have raised $997,000 for NMSU. Their goal for the endowment is $2.5 million.

"Lynda is a survivor and a wonderful role model," said co-chair Pat Sisbarro. "She's somebody who's fought the fight, and she's reminder to check yourself; early diagnosis is important, it saves lives. We're happy to have her. She represents us in a very good way."

"We're delighted to have her working with us," agreed Laura Conniff. "We met when she was first diagnosed and thought she was the epitome of TETWP and a young person contributing greatly. Unfortunately, she's very knowledgeable about the problem, but, as a survivor, she brings awareness to young people that this can happen to anyone."

Garcia is not hesitant to share her story, even with strangers.

"I honestly don't even know when I got comfortable talking about it," she said, shrugging. "When I was first diagnosed, I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't want people to judge me."

Garcia wants to use her voice as a co-chair for this campaign to show women and girls they don't need to worry about being judged.

"As time passed, I got more comfortable talking about my experience. I think it's encouraging and helpful for women to know that it's OK to talk about," she said. "I'm super excited. I wanted to be a part of TETWP for my mom. And now, it's for both me and my mom."

Her advice to women who are at risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer?

"If it feels abnormal, definitely check it out," she advised.

To learn more about NMSU Aggies Are Tough Enough to Wear Pink, visit http://www.pinkaggie.com/.