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CSULA Graduating Senior is a Testimony of Courage, Hope

Sociology major Betania Santos undergoes double mastectomy, finds strength

By Margie Low, CSULA Public Affairs
Published on LatinoLA: June 20, 2013


CSULA Graduating Senior is a Testimony of Courage, Hope


Reflecting the recent proactivity and courage of celebrity Angelina Jolie, Cal State L.A. graduate Betania Santos found that she, too, inherited a gene that is a potential precursor for breast cancer, and also decided to have a preventative double mastectomy, but at the much younger age of 20.

While she was a student at CSULA, Santos had endured the painful loss of her sister to breast cancer and her mother to pancreatic cancer, and now she is helping her father battle liver cancer.

With the knowledge that she is at a higher risk for breast cancer, Santos chose to be proactive. In 2009, she undergone a prophylactic bilateral double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.

"After my procedure, I first struggled with my self-image and self-esteem," she said, noting that there weren't many support groups for younger women who have undergone double mastectomy. "But, now, I feel more empowered as a woman, knowing that I have control over my body and health."

Santos expressed that she was happy to hear that someone as beautiful and admired as Angelina Jolie is sharing her story, so that other women who have a family history of cancer will seek out information and medical advice to find out if they need the diagnostic testing and whether medical procedure is necessary.

Rather than feel sorry for herself and for her loss, Santos entrenched herself academically and began using her experience to benefit others.

With determination and drive, Santos completed her bachelor's degree in sociology this month and will continue onto a master's degree in sociology at CSULA. Her goal is to attain a doctorate so she can conduct research on the social aspects of cancer, treatment, and post-operative adjustment.

"I feel so fortunate to be surrounded by so many angels here at CSULA," she said. "The faculty and staff members are all advocates for students and truly work to help students move forward and succeed. I will always love CSULA for that; it gave me hope in the darkest hour, and it gave me a second chance in life."

Despite her busy schedule as a student and a caretaker, Santos has also been involved in community service, assisting with the development of a variety of programs for underserved youth.

She is also filming a documentary following the RAISE LA campaign to promote equitable living wages and healthy communities, and looking into the personal lives of hotel workers who live under the poverty line in Los Angeles. Additionally, she has helped launch CSULA's Sociology Club. Since fall 2012, she has put on multiple successful colloquia bringing in guest speakers.

"My experiences have given me a sense of urgency to achieve my goals, since we have no guarantee that we will be here tomorrow, said Santos. "I try to lead my life helping students who came from the same upbringing that I did. I try to offer hope and guidance to students who have no guidance and are not following a path but somehow creating their own."

Most recently, Santos received an Associated Students, Inc. Student Achievement Award for her academic accomplishments. She also garnered an award from CSULA's Center for the Study of Genders and Sexualities to conduct a pilot study of breast cancer survivors using the social network she developed while her sister was fighting this disease.

Santos is particularly interested in the effect of breast cancer survival regarding the sexuality and social partnering of young women. In addition, she has been focused on studying "pre-vivors," women who knowingly carry the gene for breast cancer but have not yet contracted the disease.

"I believe that my sister saved my life," said Santos, in spite of still feeling heartbroken. "If it weren't for her experience and battle, I wouldn't have made the choices I made to save my own life. I hope to continue to make my sister proud and help other women who are making these difficult decisions."

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