Liz Rusnak Arizmendi is a force that not even cancer could overpower.
During her battle against Stage 4 ovarian cancer, Rusnak Arizmendi recalled, trying to trudge 100 feet to the dunes outside her family’s beach house in Ventura County “took everything out of me … to the point where I would have to collapse and sit there crying because I could barely walk.” Now, just 18 months later, she has recovered energetically, regularly jogging five miles along those dunes and working full time again as vice president of public relations at the family business, Rusnak Auto Group.
“I love having a smile on my face. I don’t know how to frown, I really don’t,” Rusnak Arizmendi said. Her positive attitude was a key factor in her vigorous fight against cancer and is now spurring her return to a healthy, cancer-free life.
The surgical scars she bears could be a disheartening reminder of all the pain she endured, but instead, in keeping with her competitive nature, she calls them “warrior scars” that mark a battle fought and won. Rusnak Arizmendi does not hide from her past pain, but instead calls it “the chapter in her life where Liz had cancer. ‘Had’ being the key word.”
Rusnak Arizmendi and her doctor, Dr. Richard Friedman, are being honored for this successful battle against cancer at the American Cancer Society Hope Gala on Saturday evening, Aug. 25. The event will be chaired by Sindee Riboli, president and general manager of Sharp Seating Co. and a longtime friend of Rusnak Arizmendi.
“Liz has gone through the battle. She understands what other people need and knows the challenges of chemotherapy and knows the ups and downs of this horrific disease, and she is a beautiful spokesperson for it,” Riboli said.
Riboli added that she considered the honor especially fitting, because “if I needed someone to support me, I would choose her.”
Overcoming cancer was a huge hurdle for Rusnak Arizmendi and her family, and she is learning to cope with what she described as her “new normal”: having regular medical checkups to look for cancer recurrences, avoiding cancer-fueling foods like sugar and adjusting to family relationships that will be forever altered by her disease.
Rusnak Arizmendi is endlessly thankful for her family’s support, but acknowledges that the illness changed the family’s “new normal” as well. Both Rusnak Arizmendi and her family faced much hardship and sorrow during the battle and now, in her recovery, they still fear a cancer reoccurrence. Her 25-year-old son Andrew Jr. now phones her daily, a change in routine since cancer struck, and the family looks to prevent stress on her whenever possible.
That’s particularly important in Rusnak Arizmendi’s case, because her illness was believed to have been caused by environmental factors, which can involve stress or surroundings, rather than genetic factors. Her coping mechanisms post-treatment have included a greater appreciation of nature.
“I am a very religious woman. I went to Mayfield Junior and Senior and am a Catholic woman raised in the Catholic Church and I have been a lecturer at San Buenaventura Mission, but now it is a little different. I look at Mother Nature as much as I look at my Lord almighty,” Rusnak Arizmendi said. She described seeing the beauty in nature around her and “literally stopping to smell the roses.”
Her close friend Riboli said that “from the very beginning there was no question about it. Liz is very strong, brave, and an inspiration to anyone who goes through this disease, because she never thought for one second that she was going to lose this battle.”
The American Cancer Society was a huge help in the battle, providing round-the-clock information and support to both patient and family.
“People know what the American Cancer Society does, but once it comes to your family, you take a whole different interest,” Rusnak Arizmendi said. Riboli, having seen the society’s array of resources and services during her friend’s battle, believes in the cause completely.
“I want to encourage people to donate. Even if they can’t attend the event, the money is all going to cancer. What I have found in all the years I have been involved in charities is that everyone wants to give, but not everyone wants to attend a gala, even though they are a lot of fun — this one is going to be a hoot. Just give something, $10, come to our events, sponsor a table, or get your company to sponsor a table,” said Riboli. “Every dollar matters here.”
The society offers resources, support and research that can help current cancer patients make the transition into their post-cancer life, just as Rusnak Arizmendi is doing.
“I think I have another purpose, and it is not to die now. I have too much to look forward to. I love life and I love what it has to offer. I adore my husband and children and I want to be around a really long time to bug them,” Rusnak Arizmendi said excitedly.
“I want to spoil the hell out of my grandchildren whenever they come into existence on this planet. So I have a lot of decades ahead of me.”