Saturday, September 19, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 29

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on October 9th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 31 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 20, Issue 31

The Awareness Issue 2019

By Sun Staff

This week we shine a light on what we should be paying attention to year round: breast cancer and domestic violence. This year, in the Sun’s Awareness Issue, Staff Writer Zac Ezzone writes about one family’s move to “save the ta-tas” while taking back their powerlifting tradition. Staff Writer William D’Urso speaks with Domestic Violence Solutions about the language barrier that prevents some Mixtec women from seeking help for domestic violence, and I talk to an oncologist at Mission Hope Cancer Center about Hidden Scar surgery.

Central Coast powerlifting family uses competitive meets to promote breast cancer awareness

After years of competing together at powerlifting meets—breaking an array of national and international records—the Los Alamos family’s tradition was disrupted when Mary Tawzer was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time in her life.

Mary’s husband, Ken Tawzer, tried competing on his own for about a year following a surgery that ended Mary’s powerlifting days. But, he said, it just wasn’t the same without his wife and his son, Clay.

“I just said, ‘You know what, this is bullshit,’” Ken said. “It’s not fun anymore, not without … Mary. That was the reason I quit.”

However, almost 10 years later, Ken and Clay are competing again. This time, it’s to raise awareness about the same disease that ended the family powerlifting tradition. At a meet in Sacramento earlier this year, Ken donned a singlet with the words “Save the ta-tas” written in pink on the side. On the back, the singlet reads, “I wear because I care.”

After taking years off of competing, Ken and Clay Tawzer have been working out in their home gym prior to an upcoming event.

“If it saves one woman’s life, it’s worth it,” Ken said about this endeavor. “That’s the whole thing in a nutshell.”

Mary was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, when she was 39 years old. A few years prior to that, she went to see her obstetrician-gynecologist about a small lump in one of her breasts about the size of a pea. The doctor told Mary that it didn’t feel suspicious, and suggested she get a mammogram, but didn’t direct her to get one. Over the next few years, the lump grew a bit and then began to hurt. 

Two or three years later, when she was in the hospital being treated for a urinary tract infection, Mary’s primary doctor noticed the lump in her breast. 

“He was checking me out and he said, ‘What is this?’” Mary said. “He goes, ‘What is this lump here? How come you’ve never told me?’”

The doctor made arrangements for Mary to get a mammogram and to see a surgeon. At the appointment, the surgeon removed the lump, which turned out to be cancerous. Following this, Mary said she then began seeing a doctor at Mission Hope Cancer Center in Santa Maria, where she began chemotherapy. 

Ken Tawzer had a custom singlet made to raise awareness about breast cancer during powerlifting competitions.

Over the next 15 years, she returned to the hospital for annual check-ups. It was during one of these appointments that Mary’s doctor discovered a lump in the area near her armpit. After some testing, the doctor determined Mary’s cancer had resurfaced and spread into her lymph nodes. 

It was after this diagnosis that Mary underwent the surgery that ended her time as a powerlifter. At the time, doctors told her she could only lift about 3- to 5-pound weights. 

“I go, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Mary said. “Because at that point I deadlifted 308 pounds.”

Six years later, in early 2018, while she was at the hospital being treated for pneumonia, a doctor suspected Mary might have cancer after completing a CT scan of her upper body. Following this scan, Mary said she learned she has metastatic breast cancer that had spread into her liver, stomach lining, and into her chest.

Since then, the medication she’s taken has helped shrink some of the tumors. Recently, she started a new type of chemotherapy treatment that she hasn’t had any issues with. 

Mary’s long battle with breast cancer has inspired some of her family members to not take any chances with their own health. Mary said her daughter noticed a lump in her breast that a doctor said wasn’t suspicious. Her daughter asked the doctor to remove it anyway and have it tested. It turns out it could have been cancerous if they hadn’t removed it, Mary said.

“I also had two cousins that found lumps in their breasts—little ones—and they had them taken out,” Mary said.

Throughout Mary’s battle with breast cancer, the Tawzer family members have relied on one another for support.

The Tawzer family wants to promote more of this type of early identification and prevention. About a year ago, Ken said they decided the best way to get the word out is through powerlifting competitions. Ken said he and Clay are participating in a World Association of Bench Presses and Deadlifters meet in Las Vegas in November. They plan on participating in next year’s event in Wisconsin as well. 

Aside from the singlet Ken now wears when competing, the family plans to have T-shirts and pink rubber bracelets made to take to these events. Additionally, the family plans to pass out pamphlets to raise awareness about breast cancer screenings.

Ken said he hopes that through these sorts of actions the family is able to motivate other people to get mammograms and act early if they locate some sort of lump in their breasts. Although a few studies over the years have questioned the effectiveness of mammograms, the American Cancer Society states that regular mammograms can be helpful in identifying breast cancer early, when it can be more easily treated.

While fully acknowledging the strength his wife has displayed throughout her battle with cancer, Ken said the entire situation has been hard for him to bear. The whole family continues to rely on one another for support.  

“It’s only been recently I’ve been able to talk about it without crying,” Ken said. “She’s my best friend and my wife second. All I know is her, and I don’t want to lose her.” 

Reach Staff Writer Zac Ezzone at

Language differences present a barrier for Mixtec women to seek help for domestic violence—or know it’s even out there

It’s one thing to have breast cancer. It’s another thing on top of it to have a deformed breast after surgery. 

“It’s a very emotional disease,” Dr. Monica Rocco said. “We’re all raised that breasts are part of a women’s sexuality. Not only have we been raised that way, but society has made breasts part of a woman’s sexuality.” 

Domestic Violence Solutions organizes annual vigils, such as the one that took place in Santa Maria last year, as a way to spread awareness and support victims of domestic violence. This year, candlelight vigils will take place in Lompoc on Oct. 10, Santa Maria on Oct. 17, and Santa Barbara on Oct. 24. To learn more, visit

Rocco, who works at Mission Hope Cancer Center as a clinical and surgical specialist in the Breast Care program, has been a surgeon for 25 years who’s specialized in breasts for 14. As a female surgeon, she said, she understands how important breasts can be to the female identity—and how concerned some women are with how their breasts will look after a lumpectomy (removal of a lump or tumor) or mastectomy (removal of the whole breast). 

“You all of a sudden have to look at yourself in the mirror and see that you’ve either lost a breast completely or have it deformed in some way that can be really difficult. ... That somewhat defines us. It sets us apart from men,” Rocco said. “We would like to continue to make them beautiful, and I think that’s important.” 

That’s why for two years now, Rocco has specialized in a procedure known as Hidden Scar breast cancer surgery. It’s cancer removal and cosmetic surgery all in one. 

Surgeons who specialize in the technique, which is fairly new, learn how to place their incisions on the breast so they’re as cosmetically appealing as possible. Either under the arm, beneath the breast, or through the areola, depending on where the cancer is located. They then try to rearrange the fatty tissue to close off any dead space, so any tissue that’s been removed appears invisible. 

“And then, it’s just less of a reminder,” Rocco said. “Breast surgeons are trying to offer it to people because we are trying to tell people, ‘You don’t have to be deformed after surgery.’”

It’s not always possible to perform Hidden Scar surgery, depending on where the lumps or tumors are located and what exactly is needed based on the patient’s prognosis. But women should ask their surgeon if it’s possible, Rocco said. And, she said, she understands that appearance isn’t necessarily important to everyone. 

“I have to sit down and talk to that woman before I can tell if it’s important or not,” Rocco said. “You never know how important it is until you sit down and talk to that woman ... age doesn’t determine it. Marital status doesn’t determine it. ... It’s totally an individual answer.”

Domestic Violence Solutions
Domestic violence awareness

Getting to know her patients and understand what they want is part of her job, Rocco said. It’s why she started specializing in Hidden Scar surgery—to give her patients as many options as possible to choose from as they go through their cancer treatment. 

“As a breast surgeon, I get to take care of the patient—heart, body, and soul—and I like having long-term relationships with my patients.” she said. “I like being able to take care of the whole patient.” 

She also performs genetic testing for those who want to find out if they have any genetic mutations that might put them at risk for cancer. Only about 10 percent of the people who get breast cancer actually have a mutation, but if someone does test positive for a mutation, it can put them at a higher risk for breast cancer, and it could change potential treatment options. 

Most breast cancer cases—about 60 percent, according to Rocco—are sporadic. There’s no family history of breast cancer and no genetic mutation. Approximately 30 percent of cases are familial, or inherited.

Rocco said she sees more than 150 breast cancer cases a year, with patients coming from all over the Central Coast, between Lompoc and Cayucos. She said she tries to listen to her patients as much as possible in order to take care of more than just the surgical part of them. As a breast surgeon, she says, you have to be able to take them through the entire journey, from chemotherapy to surgery to post-surgery and beyond. 

Over her decades as a surgeon, she said treatment for breast cancer has involved less and less surgery, which is something she sees as a good thing. When she was a resident, she said doctors performed a lot of mastectomies, and now, as often as possible, surgeons do lumpectomies, which target the specific area with the cancer. Chemotherapy is used to shrink the tumors before surgery, and breast cancer is being caught earlier and earlier with imaging and regular checkups.

Sometimes, tumors can be treated with just chemotherapy and radiation. And as treatment technology continues to progress, Rocco said she can see a future where surgery is no longer necessary.

“My hope before I die is that pretty soon I’ll be out of business. We won’t even operate on breast cancer patients anymore,” Rocco said. “That would be beautiful to me.” 

Reach Editor Camillia Lanham at 

* Editor's note: The photo caption has been edited to reflect the correct dates for Domestic Violence Solutions' 2019 candlelight vigils.

A breast surgeon at Mission Hope Cancer Center works to treat the whole patient

Dr. Monica Rocco specializes in a breast cancer surgery known as Hidden Scar. It’s a way of removing cancer that leaves the breast as intact as possible by hiding surgery scars.

For Norma Cruz, the work is personal.

She’s a social worker for a women’s shelter in Santa Maria that services at-risk women, often of domestic violence. She’s part of Domestic Violence Solutions, an organization that aims to protect the victims of domestic violence. 

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) estimates that 10 million people a year suffer from domestic violence. Not all of those people seek help, but Domestic Violence Solutions offers women the option of leaving their situations. Jan Campbell, the director of Domestic Violence Solutions, said women leaving their homes may not have much money or credit to help them get a new life.

“It’s a very pervasive and very hidden thing because people don’t want to admit that the person they’re in a loving relationship with would hurt them,” she said. “People are afraid because now they’ve left their home, they have their children.”

But the women Cruz specializes in treating have an added complication: language.

Cruz said these women come from Mixtec areas of Mexico, regions where people speak neither English nor Spanish. She said many of the women she works with come to the U.S. as purchased brides for large sums, often $15,000 to $20,000. Without a common language, she said it makes leaving their husbands more difficult. 

Mission Hope Cancer Center, where Dr. Monica Rocco works, is celebrating its sixth anniversary this year.

“They’re isolated here and don’t understand the resources we have to help them,” Cruz said.

Cruz’s parents came to Santa Maria from one of these regions, Oaxaca. She grew up bilingual, speaking Mixtec and English. But she said it’s difficult to find people with the language skills to interact with the Mixtec population here.

“They don’t know where the stores are; they don’t know where anything is,” she said.

That makes it difficult for them to leave dangerous domestic situations, she said.

The U.S. is also a completely different culture to many of them. Cruz said her own grandmother was purchased as a bride by her grandfather’s family and suffered beatings for years.

“My mom saw this type of abuse with her parents,” Cruz said. “I grew up hearing about this person or that person who ran away. It was normalized.”

Though bride purchases do happen in the Mixtec community, it’s hard to say how many, and it’s hard to say how many women are abused—Cruz said that kind of data isn’t easy to come by. Even English speaking U.S. citizens have numerous barriers when it comes to leaving abusive relationships. Cruz said the women fear violence, worry about leaving their children behind, or simply don’t have the money to get out of a dangerous situation.

The Mixtec region in Mexico stretches about 15,000 square miles, according to, a website founded and operated by the Latin American Studies Department at San Diego State University.

The region’s peoples are known for their agriculture, but the quality of the soil makes mass production difficult, keeping much of the crops to subsistence farming, according to

Girls night out
Mission Hope Cancer Center invites you to a Girls Night Out on Oct. 29 at 5 p.m. in celebration of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Oncologist Dr. Erin Chamberlain and Breast Care Program Clinical and Surgical Specialist Dr. Monica Rocco will give brief presentations and answer questions anyone might have. The Hitching Post will provide light appetizers and wine. Call Mission Hope to register at (805) 219-HOPE (4673).

Mixtecs represent the largest of three indigenous peoples, numbering around 500,000. But those numbers are two decades old, representing the difficulty there is in monitoring such a small population in a country of nearly 130 million people.

For abused women from a Mixtec region like Oaxaca, the language barrier compounds the problems brought on by domestic abuse. Cruz said many of them aren’t in the country legally, and they fear that asking for help could send them to immigration enforcement authorities. 

National rhetoric regarding immigrants is polarizing, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids making national news, such as that of a Mississippi chicken plant this summer. However, total deportations have been down during President Donald Trump’s term. News site Axios reported that President Barack Obama’s administration deported more than 400,000 immigrants in fiscal year 2012, while Trump deported more than 250,000 in fiscal years 2015 and 2016.

Locally, the fear of deportation remains a strong deterrent—social worker Cruz said that the shelter doesn’t get as many people as they’d like, partly because they fear being forced out of the country. She estimates that maybe 100 Mixtec women come through the shelter each year, but she knows there are more women who are abused out there. Cruz said it’s sometimes difficult to keep them from going back to abusive relationships because there aren’t many people who speak the same language. 

But there are success stories. Cruz said some women have come through the program, received Social Security numbers, and are earning a living here legally. 

Domestic Violence Solutions Executive Director Campbell said that part of getting Mixtec women—or any victim of abuse—on their own is showing them that there’s a better way.

“If you grow up and think that’s how people behave toward each other, you’re more likely to be a victim or an abuser,” Campbell said. 

Staff Writer William D’Urso can be reached at

Weekly Poll
Should the county Public Health Department help elementary schools apply for the state’s waiver program?

Yes, that’s what the department is there for.
Schools shouldn’t open at all right now, nevermind with the county’s help.
If the state thinks schools are ready, what’s the problem?
Schools should have to fend for themselves; it shows whether they’re ready to handle reopening.

| Poll Results

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