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These two are active in the fight

One cancer survivor, another battling it keep busy, work to raise funds for research.

Provided | Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

It took a full year after Theresa Mendez felt a bump in her throat to find a new doctor and the ear, nose and throat specialist who ordered the ultrasound and biopsy that led to her diagnosis of Stage 3 thyroid cancer in 2014.

When the lifelong Cicero resident and mother of three grown children saw her test results, ‘‘I was stunned,’’ she said. ‘‘Cancer never crossed my mind. I thought: ‘This isn’t happening. This is unbelievable.’ ’’

Mendez had surgery to remove her thyroid on Feb. 23, 2015, and took radioactive iodine treatments in pill form. She vividly recalled the three-day treatment period she spent isolated in her room on a strict low-sodium diet, with her family pushing a food tray through the door.

The cancer returned, so she had a second surgery on Feb. 19, 2016, to remove tumors in her lymph nodes.

Throughout and since her personal fight against cancer, Mendez — now in complete remission — joined others in the front-line battle against the disease, volunteering for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life fundraiser walk, organizing luminaria ceremonies to honor survivors and those we have lost and leading the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network for Illinois’ 4th Congressional District.

In her free time, she crochets ‘‘chemo caps’’ for people who’ve lost their hair during chemotherapy treatments, including princess-themed hats with long faux braids and caps topped with mohawk-style haircuts. She donates the proceeds — $15 for plain and $20 for the themed caps — to American Cancer Society research.

‘‘Everyone’s battle with cancer is different,’’ Mendez said. ‘‘I have a fear of having [the cancer] coming back or facing another cancer down the line. But I try very hard to get ‘out of my head’ and go see my doctor on a regular basis. I try to stay as positive as possible.’’

Brian Mita, the owner of Bucktown restaurant Izakaya Mita, got the shock of his life in June 2019 when he found out he had Stage 3 colon cancer. His only warning, at age 41, was constipation, which he initially attributed to a stressful divorce at the time.

The timing of his diagnosis brought additional challenges for Mita, Months later, the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to close his restaurant and halted his chemotherapy treatments. The cancer metastasized to his liver and reached Stage 4 in six months.

Now 43, Mita is in his fourth round of chemotherapy, which he calls his ‘‘second-to-last option’’ for treatment.

But he tries to stay positive and remember his victories, such as being the first person at Cook County Hospital to receive a state-of-the-art treatment in February targeting his BRAF mutation, which doctors say increases the aggressiveness of colon cancer’s spread.

He also has stayed active, connecting with his twin, Steve, and a childhood friend with biweekly Zoom calls during lockdown and updating his restaurant with a fresh coat of paint, renovated bar and new, traditional Japanese panel boards.

Mita brought that same energy to his fight against colon cancer and last year joined the American Cancer Society’s virtual ‘‘Taste of Hope’’ to raise funds for research. Colon cancer continues to climb as one of the leading causes of death for men 20 to 40 years old.

‘‘I imagined this as a war,’’ Mita said. ‘‘So many people are going through the same thing, all the time. . . . We have to figure out why.’’

LEARN MORE: suntimes.com/tackle-cancer