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Helping Each Other Along Life's Course

Daniella Ruiz tended to her mother when she contracted cancer. Now Iris Ruiz, in remission, inspires her daughter to finish marathons.

January 03, 2006|Stephen Clark | Times Staff Writer

By mile 18 of the 2003 San Diego Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, first-timer Daniella Ruiz, 36, had reached her breaking point. With a blister the size of a golf ball on the sole of her left foot and virtually nothing left in her tank, she plopped down onto the pavement, pulled out her cellphone and called her mother, Iris Ruiz, who was waiting for her at the last mile.

"Mom, I can't take another step," she said, sobbing.

"Yes, you can," said the elder Ruiz, who had recently endured four months of chemotherapy -- losing her hair, losing weight and losing her strength -- after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which was now in remission.

She had prevailed, she said, and her daughter could too. "I'm going to send angels to lift you up on your feet, and I'll be waiting for you at the finish line. If I endured those days at the hospital, there's no reason why you can't get up and walk to the finish line."

Daniella Ruiz tucked away her phone, got up and limped the final eight miles to the finish line. There, she fell into her mother's arms.

"We hugged and sobbed for the longest time," Daniella said.

Since then, mother and daughter have gotten through seven more marathons, traveling as far as Honolulu. Daniella does the running. Her mother gets her to the finish line, meeting her in the final mile. Together, the two walk hand in hand to the end.

For Iris and Daniella, the last mile of each marathon gives them a chance to show the power of holding on despite the odds.

"That last mile seems the most joyful that anyone can experience," said Iris, 64, who plans to be at her daughter's side for many more marathons.

"When you have this dreadful disease, you can count your days, your hours, your minutes. So if it's by the grace of God I can do it, I will," she said.

Family members often run or walk races in honor of their loved ones, but "it's very uncommon for the patient to be able to participate in such a wonderful way," said Liz Olsen, national spokeswoman for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the beneficiary of the national team Daniella runs on. "The patient is often at home, unable to participate in the last mile."

There are more than 30 types of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system. Each year, more than 54,000 Americans are diagnosed with the disease and 20,000 people die of it, according to the National Cancer Institute. Although no cure has been found, it is possible for patients to live with the disease for 20 years or more. The survival rate of patients after five years is 50% to 60%.

But when Iris was diagnosed with the disease Sept. 3, 2002, a day after Daniella's 33rd birthday, Daniella wasn't thinking about how long her mother could live; she was thinking about how soon her mother could die. "In my mind, my mom was never going to dance at my wedding, hold her first grandchild -- all the milestones I wanted her to be at," Daniella said. "I was just devastated."

Daniella took time off from her job as a district sales manager to tend to her mother as she went through chemotherapy, seeing "all the things you shouldn't watch your mother go through," she said, choking back tears. And even though she's not an athlete and barely exercised at all during those four months, when she learned her mother was in remission she decided to start running marathons.

"She's gone the distance with the disease, and I wanted to give her something to show her how proud I was," she said.

"It was also something for myself. I did nothing but sit ... depressed" during the four months of her mother's chemotherapy.

Iris was surprised to hear about Daniella's new mission. "I said to myself, 'You're going to endure all this training?' I said, 'Honey, it's a marathon.' I would look at the word in newspapers and books and the word itself was.... "

She sighed. "I said I need to be there for her. She was there for me."

Daniella joined Team in Training, an endurance sport program that prepares marathon runners and helps raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Daniella runs a mix of full and half-marathons with her local team in Long Beach, and with the support of her parents, brother and boyfriend. She has raised $15,000 over the last two years and wants to raise $10,000 over the next year.

Daniella said she plans to keep running marathons as long as she can or until a cure is found. Her next race will be a half-marathon in Phoenix on Jan. 15.

Patrick Delaney, one of the coaches of the Long Beach team, praised Daniella for her dedication and Iris, who is an honorary team member this season, for her support. "They're part of the reason why I want to keep coaching," he said.

Iris is no stranger to cancer. She volunteered for 20 years as a chaplain in the cancer ward of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. She performed missionary work in India in the 1980s, which included helping Mother Teresa.

Iris said her background helped her avoid self-pity when she was diagnosed. But she was still thrown off balance. "If somebody would ask me if I was being prepared for what was taking place -- no one is prepared," she said.

Still, Iris and her family consider the hardship a blessing. In addition to growing closer, they have befriended other cancer survivors, some of whom needed a shoulder to lean on.

"We have met so many beautiful people," Iris said. "I know in my heart that I have helped so many people cross the finish line."

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