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Life lessons from a cancer warrior

Rebekah Ruby thinks cancer patients are awesome. I agree.

The 24-year-old Ashland nursing student should know. She spent the past year battling breast cancer. And that's not all.

While this brave young woman was dealing with a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and all the physical, emotional and mental fallout that comes with the brutal realities of cancer treatment, doctors discovered Rebekah also had a little problem with a few holes in her heart that needed mending.

Open heart surgery? Check.

Listening to this beautiful, brave, young woman share her story as she laughed, cried and bemoaned the vagaries of "chemo brain" while she spent her precious energy encouraging other women to get cancer screening brought myriad emotions. And memories.

A cancer diagnosis hits like a tidal wave, sweeping lives along in its path — for months, years or even a lifetime. I curse its name, while praying fervently for a permanent cure.

No one gets forever. No one. Still, it's hard to wrap your head around the concept of mortality. Harder still to see your mother's face as you tell her you have an aggressive form of cancer, knowing that your grandmother died of the same disease.

"How the heck am I supposed to tell her I have cancer?" Rebekah recounted, shaking her head and wiping away tears at the memory.

"I often tried to be strong for them because I wish that it (the cancer) hadn't affected them."

But mothers are their own force of nature, especially when it comes to their children, Rebekah found out.

"She took it so well," Rebekah said. "She got a notepad and came to the doctor's with me. She asked questions. She was there for me."

Equally supportive were her four siblings. And her nieces and nephews. It was playing with an infant nephew that cemented the reality for Rebekah that losing her breasts was worth it if it meant being there to see him grow up.

Rebekah has worked in an orphanage in Mexico. She's also been an au pair in Germany. She wants kids. So she had her eggs harvested at a Portland fertility clinic. It wasn't fun. She now jokes that her future offspring had better not give her any guff or she'll put them back in an ice-cold time-out.

At the end of March, after the mastectomy, but before anyone realized she'd need heart surgery, a doctor advised Rebekah to take a little vacation from cancer.

"He said I should do something fun," she said with a guilty smile, knowing globe-trotting was probably not what the good doc had in mind.

Rebekah took her niece to Barcelona, then Paris, and then on to a reunion in Frankfurt.

"I got to stay in my old room," Rebekah said. "For a minute it was like cancer had never been a part of my life. It was a good reminder that I was alive before cancer, and I made it this far."

Fighting cancer has helped shape who Rebekah is now, and who she wants to become — a nurse advocate for cancer patients. Not everyone has the family support system that she had, Rebekah knows.

"I just want to be able to sit next to someone (and help them through this)," Rebekah said, dabbing her eyes and smiling.

Rebekah's story ran Friday. That morning I got a sweet note from a woman about to enter the hospital to have her own breast cancer surgery. She is 84.

Rebekah has concerns the cancer may return. But she is not going to let fears about tomorrow rule today. A beloved chemo buddy showed her that today is what matters. Her middle-50s friend was first diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 20s.

"She's been fighting it for 30 years," Rebekah said. "And she has so much joy."

Near the end of Rebekah's tale, she noted rather bemusedly that she used to be a very introverted person. Now she's a cancer warrior. I smiled through my own tears.

"Sometimes knowledge makes a bloody entrance." It was one of my husband's favorite sayings.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.