Cancer, Be Not Proud

Celia Ruiz Tomlinson with husband,  Bruce Harders, grandson,   Oskar Andzic Tomlinson, and dog, Lolita  (Photo courtesy of Celia Ruiz Tomlinson)

Celia Ruiz Tomlinson with husband, Bruce Harders, grandson, Oskar Andzic Tomlinson, and dog, Lolita (Photo courtesy of Celia Ruiz Tomlinson)

When Celia Ruiz moved to the United States from the Philippines in 1968 with little more than an engineering degree and $300 in her pocket, she was told she’d never make it as an engineer. At the time, engineering was a male-dominated profession. But her persistence paid off. Celia became the first registered Asian professional engineer in New Mexico and later founded her own engineering firm. She wrote the book Don’t Ever Tell Me YOU CAN’T, which chronicles how she overcame obstacles – absolute poverty, gender and racial discrimination – to achieve success.

She is a professional motivational speaker. In 2012, five years into retirement, cancer shocked her to the core. True to her character, she responded to the formidable challenge with aplomb.

When taking a break from her cancer-laughter blog, she writes for the University of Colorado Hospital cancer blog.

The opening day of my cancer journey will forever be etched in my mind.

“Celia, have you visited any countries lately that has health issues?” my physician’s assistant (PA), a tall Hispanic woman in her mid-'30s asked me as I sat on the examination bed.

“No, but up until four years ago, I visited the Philippines every six months. Why do you ask?”

She shook her head. “I don’t like the looks of your x-ray.”

“No!” I tried to conceal my concern. I took off my glasses, tossed my head backward and sideways the way Farrah Fawcett did to bounce her long blond curls in the air.

“Áre you okay?” she asked worriedly. With my cropped hair, I must have looked like a head banger. Her eyes filled with pity. “I’m ordering a CTscan for you. I need to see detailed images of your lungs.”

The word “CTscan” planted eerie thoughts of cancer to my head. Oblivious to my problem, she sashayed out of the room. Left alone, I flipped through a People magazine for distraction. The pictures of Kim Kardashian only made things worse. I thought, does she ever get sick?

The door cracked open and my grim-faced PA reappeared. She gave me the CTscan order.

A week later I was back with my PA. “There’s a quarter-sized spot in the bottom of your left lung and tiny ones everywhere in both lungs,” she announced softly.

“There’s no cancer in my family. Tuberculosis, yes, my youngest brother died of tuberculosis.” I said indignantly in one breath as though tuberculosis was a more glamorous disease.

“We’ll get you a PETscan. If parts of you light up, then we know cancer has spread.”

After the PETscan I was back again in front of my PA in the examination room.

“Good news and bad news.” She opened a manila folder. “The good news: no part of your body lit up.”

I heaved a big sigh of relief. “The bad news: the PETscan confirmed the tumor in your lower left lung.”

“There’s something,” I gladly remembered. “Last month, I walked from my son’s house to the courthouse for jury duty. I had to cross under the I-25 overpass from which pigeons drop poop on the sidewalk. One day, the wind blew and stirred the dried bird caca. I accidentally inhaled quite a bit of it.” I was hoping to convince her I had the chicken farmer’s disease. She only gave me puppy-dog eyes.

“I’ll refer you to a pulmonologist. He’ll order a biopsy.”  

Now a two-year cancer survivor, I live normally like I had never been diagnosed with lung cancer. I advise my family against collecting “abuloy” (donations) for me just yet, lest I be charged with fraud.

Long before the biopsy, it became clear that two things awaited me: the stigma and fear of cancer. Thoughts of the two scary things would have been crippling, but not for me. Like other obstacles that had confronted me as a pioneer woman engineer, the cancer challenge triggered my positivity.

I set out to arm myself for the biggest fight of my life yet. I immersed myself in acquiring knowledge, because knowledge is power. I cozied up with my buddy, Dr. Google, and extracted information on lung cancer types, treatments, research, clinical trials and support groups. I read up on foundations that provide financial assistance to patients, ranches for athletic activities to “thrivers,” education to the public.

After my exhaustive research, one thought stood out: Ignorance drives the stigma and the fear of cancer. Most people don’t know the successes in the fight against cancer. They think a cancer diagnosis is an automatic death sentence.

By the time I lay face down on the bench for the video-assisted biopsy of my tumor, my concern had become more mundane. I kept thinking, Why don’t doctors provide a hole for the face in the bench, like the ones at the spas? I was already mentally prepared to deal with the biopsy result.

The biopsy result confirmed cancer at the bottom lobe of my left lung. The lobe was immediately scheduled for surgical removal. During the procedure, the surgeon found a smaller nodule to be cancerous also. He stopped the operation and sewed me up, stating there was no sense in removing one cancerous tumor if others are yet to be dealt with. The following morning, an oncologist sat at my bedside, telling me I had Stage IV and eight months to live.

Fortunately, he added, “You belong to a sub-group of cancer patients who respond well to a new anti-cancer pill. That sub-group is Asian women who never smoked.” Thank goodness for small favors!

Now a two-year cancer survivor, I live normally like I had never been diagnosed with lung cancer. I advise my family against collecting “abuloy” (donations) for me just yet, lest I be charged with fraud.

I often visit an online patient support group, where discussions on why cancer diagnosis wrecks relationships frequently arise. I get my two cents in when it comes to the topic. I tell them about my two sisters – one in Makati, the other in Dallas – who suddenly stopped emailing me after hearing about my cancer diagnosis. I let them suffer in silence for a little bit. Then one day, I decided to pierce the quiet. I emailed them:

“Since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve learned that some people stop making contact with their cancer-stricken loved one due to ignorance. They don’t know what to say and stay away. Anybody, smoker or non-smoker, who has a lung can have lung cancer. It is a chronic disease that can be managed. Life goes on and laughter must continue.”

Soon after I hit “Send,” I received an email from my sister in Dallas, cc’d the one in Metro Manila.

“OMG, thank you for writing! A friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer and she did not want to be contacted.”

With that, the siblings’ laughter returned, and I was launched on my mission to help educate people and eradicate the stigma and fear of cancer.

Celia Ruiz Tomlinson

Celia Ruiz Tomlinson

Celia Ruiz Tomlinson is the author of "Don't Ever Tell Me You Can't".

Also from Celia Ruiz Tomlinson:

Desperately Seeking Relevance
December 5, 2013
In which a highly accomplished woman in retirement finds her life’s Third Act—as a film extra.