• Voices of Impact – Manuel Hernandez

    Personal Stories, Community


     As a military man, I’m all too familiar with the hardships of war. But when I had to watch my mom battle breast cancer, I saw what it truly meant to be in the fight of your life.

    In 2001, my mother Toddy Yeats was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was living on the Barona Indian Reservation outside of San Diego, CA; I was stationed in Afghanistan, serving as an Army helicopter pilot.

    My mother and I have always been very close. My biological father passed away when I was only one, so it was just the two of us until I was 13, and she remarried to the man I consider my father. Having been in the military for so long, I always told myself, “I’ll come back home someday.” But when I learned of my mom’s breast cancer diagnosis, I realized that “someday” might be too late. The whole Native American community rallied around my mother, the first person that we knew of on our reservation to face breast cancer, in support – an amazing gift given that my siblings were 16, 14 and 12 at the time and my father was working long hours. I was grateful for the community’s support, but with so much distance between us I still felt helpless and hopeless.

    In 2002, the military arranged for me to move to Los Angeles – only a short drive from my mother in San Diego. A few years later, I was studying for my teaching credential at National University, building a house on the reservation I grew up on and, most importantly, my mother was cancer-free.School wasn’t as time-consuming as I thought it would be, and I was eager to spend more time volunteering. I was familiar with Susan G. Komen and the impact the organization has in San Diego and around the globe, so I reached out to Komen San Diego to see how I could support this very personal cause. As luck would have it (for both me and the Affiliate), Executive Director Laura Farmer Sherman had just been contacted by a Marine who wanted to do a 5K at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. I got right to work. In just a couple of months, we got through Marine Corp channels, legal systems (both here and overseas) and, with more than 560 runners and $18,000 raised, Camp Leatherneck was the largest team registered for the 2012 San Diego Race for the Cure.

    Thank you so much to the Marines at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan who participated in the Komen San Diego Race! Seen here: troops with certificates of appreciation.

    Now, as Volunteer Director of Military Initiatives and Native American Outreach, I am still fighting hard in this war on breast cancer. My kids, wiser about breast cancer thanks to their grandmother, play a role in the fight too. I am so proud to see them volunteering their time to help the Affiliate, doing everything from manning the registration table at an Affiliate event to driving all over town with me, picking up items from local sponsors.

    My heritage as a Kumeyaay Indian from the Barona Band of Mission Indians fuels my passion for this cause as well. I have met too many women on the reservation who do not understand why it’s important for them to get regular screenings and be aware of their health, and I am happy to see Komen San Diego working to bring knowledge and resources to my friends and neighbors.

    Last October marked my mother’s 10th anniversary of being cancer-free, and in November, our team, “Toddy’s Tatas,” came out to the Komen San Diego Race in full force (22 of us!) for the sixth year in a row. It is always a very emotional day for my mom and all of us, and one we look forward to every year – this year our team raised more than $11,000 in support of the cause.

    We certainly have a lot to celebrate, but when I think that one in eight women will face breast cancer in her lifetime, I worry for my daughter, her friends, my mother and women everywhere. As men, we have to realize that this disease could someday affect the women in our lives. Men don’t typically get involved until someone they know gets breast cancer, and then they are shy or confused because it feels like a woman’s environment.

    I hope to inspire men everywhere to step up and join this fight. Don’t wait until someone you know gets breast cancer – do it now. Volunteer at your local Affiliate, participate in a Race, hold a fundraiser, and let’s show the women we love what kind of impact we can make working together to end this disease.

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