Cancer leads La Jolla massage therapist to act of kindness

The lump showed up last October. It was in her right breast.

Ruth Gordon knew she was genetically predisposed. Her sister, mother and maternal grandmother also had breast cancer.

The mammogram saved her life.

“Let me tell you, if I hadn’t had that, it would have metastasized,” Gordon says. “There was no palpable lump, nothing to feel. It was between the lobes.”

Gordon, 68, relaxes on the bench outside her La Jolla massage studio, Mandolin Gardens, following her second client of the day. The sound of water bubbles from the Crosby Center’s decorative brook behind her.

This is Gordon’s first day back on the job in six months.

“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me,” the University City resident says. “I want people to say she had to battle cancer, she’s over it, and now she’s ready to enjoy life.”

Scottish roots

Gordon moved to San Diego in 1982 with her husband and two young children, Paula and Vince. They came from Scotland, where Ruth was raised in a tiny coal-mining village, Stoneyburn, by a country doctor and his loving wife.

“We were the only Jewish family,” Gordon says with a still-strong brogue. “It was a strange upbringing. I was Jewish yet I went to a Protestant public school.” (The only other choice, she says, was Catholic public school because there were no private schools.)

After her divorce in 1991, Gordon became a portrait painter. People would bring photographs for her to paint.

“But it was very isolating and I wanted to do something that was more nurturing, because I grew up in a nurturing environment,” she says.

One day, Gordon recalls, she got her first massage “and I thought, if I could do that for other people — make them feel so good — it would just make sense.”

Gordon learned massage at Mueller College of Holistic Studies, then worked for the Sporting Club at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla for 20 years until it closed.

“I massaged celebrities and professional athletes,” she says. “It was very exciting.”

Even more fulfilling, though, was helping cancer patients after hanging her own shingle in the Crosby Center at 7742 Herschel Ave. Before Gordon experienced what survivors euphemistically call “the journey” for herself, Gordon massaged four or five breast-cancer patients.

“They all came to me with that initial diagnosis in fear over their mortality,” she says. “Eventually, they felt comfortable enough to take off their hat or their wig and I’d massage their scalp.”

Not what you want to hear

After Gordon’s surgeon at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla removed the lump from her right breast, he discovered some cancer he missed. Instead of having a second disfiguring lumpectomy, Gordon opted for a double-mastectomy.

“My sister had only one removed and, every year, she had to have an MRI scan and every year, she was anxiety-ridden that they would find it in the other breast,” Gordon says. “And I didn’t want to go through that. I just didn’t want to live with that.”

But this wasn’t even the end of Gordon’s fun. In February, she developed an infection requiring emergency surgery and weeks of nauseating antibiotics.

“It just happens,” she says. “My medical team at Scripps are outstanding.”

And this was in the middle of radiation treatments. A few weeks later, Gordon nearly fainted in a Walmart. She was rushed to the ER with a low white blood cell count.

“No matter what, you’ve got to keep doing your radiation,” Gordon says. “I had no energy, I could hardly walk. It was one thing after another.”

Knocking wood

But Gordon’s final radiation treatment (knock wood) was a week ago, and she’s only looking forward. In October, she’ll receive soft implants with fat grafts “and I’ll be done.”

Gordon says she is so grateful to be able to work again, to celebrate her survival, she is offering an ongoing discount of half off her $80-per-hour massage rate to all fellow breast-cancer survivors.

“I understand so well now what they’re going through, and I just want to help,” she says. “I want to help them make lemonades out of lemons.”

— To book an appointment at Mandolin Gardens, email ruthie@mandolingardens.com or call (619) 840 1556.

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