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Family man embraces cancer fight
Written by Mark Lineberger   
Wednesday, 09 September 2009 11:57

T.J. Ruggiero lives a more healthy lifestyle than most people. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke. He works out and eats organic food. That’s why his reaction wasn’t a surprise when his doctor told him he had cancer.
“I was totally floored,” Ruggiero said.

The 42-year-old husband and father of two suddenly realized firsthand that cancer doesn’t discriminate.

Earlier this year, Ruggiero was feeling great. He’s the highest ranked martial arts student at KC’s Family Tae Kwon Do, and he was training hard to earn his black belt.

Ruggiero was at a chiropractor’s office earlier this year when he discovered some odd swelling around his neck. Playing it safe rather than sorry, Ruggiero went to get it checked out. His blood test was clean, but after a series of invasive biopsies he received the verdict in April: Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

No one wants cancer, but if cancer comes, Ruggiero said Hodgkin’s lymphoma was the kind to get. When detected early, this form of cancer comes with a 90 percent survival rate. ­­

Ruggiero caught it at stage two and started treatment immediately. He thanks his excellent insurance for the care he’s received; although he used to be an aerospace engineer with Lockheed Martin, he now works in database support for Oracle, and he said the company provides great coverage for its employees.

His trip to the hospital was a bit of a reality check, Ruggiero said, when he saw all the other cancer patients waiting for treatment and when he practically became a human lab rat for endless batteries of tests and scans.
“I don’t ever want to go back there,” Ruggiero said.

Ruggiero is keeping practical and keeping cool about what he has to do. He knows that a 90 percent survival rate means that there’s a terrifying 10 percent looming out there, and Ruggiero isn’t taking any chances.

He’s mostly been staying at home because he’s not sure how his immune system is going to react to too much time in public places. He’s felt some of the early symptoms of his battle with cancer, the itching and terrible fevers, one of which recently kept him hospitalized for a week.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been that sick,” Ruggiero said.

He’s weathered the chemotherapy treatments fairly well and credits advances in medical treatment over the years. “It’s not like it was 15 years ago,” Ruggiero said.

He’s sporting the bald head that comes with chemotherapy, and while he can pull off the look rather well, there’s no doubt he’s looking forward to the day when his hair can grow again.

He’s still working out, and although he’s weaker than he used to be, he’s still training for that black belt.

“It’s on my bucket list,” Ruggiero said with a touch of dark humor about his current fight against this dreaded disease.

His wife, Sherri, and his two boys, Tristan, 11, and Nick, 9, train with him together as a family. The diagnosis was stressful for all of them, but Ruggiero said it was especially scary for his sons. A very close friend of the family with a son about their age died earlier this year of pancreatic cancer.

“They hear this ‘c-word’ and it’s scary for them after what happened to their friend’s dad,” Ruggiero said.

Ruggiero’s positive attitude about the fight ahead of him is apparent.
“What can you do?” asked Ruggiero. “I’ve got a wife and two kids.”

He lost a third child to SIDS a couple of years ago, and Ruggiero said that was without a doubt the most difficult thing he’s ever been through; cancer is just another battle he has to face.

But from now until Ruggiero draws his last breath, hopefully a long, long time from now, he will be able to claim that he’s a cancer survivor.

He’s already signed up to attend the survivors’ dinner at this year’s Relay For Life, Camp Verde’s effort to help raise money for the American Cancer Society.

Ruggiero will also honor the memory of his recently departed friend who walked the survivors’ lap around the track at last year’s Relay. It’s clear Ruggiero is determined to beat the hand he’s been dealt.

“Cancer strikes across all walks of life,” Ruggiero said. “That doesn’t mean life stops when you have it.”

 

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