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  • By Gina Tabonares-Reilly

Conquering the Big C and confronting its economic impact

Dr. Claret Ruane

Dr. Claret Ruane had just returned from her annual mammogram examination in Philippines when she got the bad news: She had stage two breast cancer.

The 48-year-old academic keeps a busy schedule as a professor at the University of Guam. She couldn’t help feeling cheated and confronted familiar questions: “Why me” and “why now?”

Ruane is an energetic, passionate, career-oriented mother of a 14-year-old. Her academic pursuits have kept her running for more than 22 years. If she is not teaching she is doing research, writing reports or organizing and attending international conferences. She lives a healthy life, was never absent from her class and is very observant of her yearly medical check-ups.

Instead of wallowing on the bad news, the teacher of statistics and economics applied her teaching on the concepts of probabilities and randomness and realized that the type of cancer that she had was not hereditary, but a random occurrence.

Ruane said her family medical history didn’t answer the ‘why me’ question. “Based on statistics for invasive ductal carcinoma, the kind of breast cancer I’ve got is the most common, accounting for 80 percent of all breast cancers.180,000 women in the US are diagnosed with it every year,” Ruane said.

Dr. Ruane started college at 16 , earned BS and MA degrees in Economics at San Jose State University in California and a Ph.D in International Development Economics at the University of California. She spent six years in New York as economics professor and taught at the UP Diliman School of Economics before spending ten months in Tokyo as a research scholar. With her family, she moved to Guam 10 years ago and became a professor at UOG where she teaches four to five courses per regular semester. Aside from teaching, she also serves on committees and mentors students.

The ‘Why now’ question came up.

“I did not want to abandon [my students] halfway through, but when is the best time to get sick? For me, a central planner, micro-manager and lifelong obsessive, the timing of when the Big C afflicted me was quite a challenge,” Ruane said.

Facing 14 months of chemotherapy including 33 days of daily radiation, Ruane tried to bargain with her oncologist. Could she wait for semester-end in mid-May? Her oncologist countered that cancer cells do not know timing. They just multiply.

Ruane accepted that her better chance of surviving was to follow the rules.

“My cancer was detected early and there’s a 98 percent chance of cure . Any delay would complicate my situation and could even lead to a higher stage cancer,” she added.

For 14 months her routine changed. Her treatment schedule slowed her teaching, but recalibrated her faith, offering answers to her questions.

“You can try to fight it or look to your faith to know that everything is in God’s time, not yours. My faith gave me comfort and helped me understand my situation and deal with it better.”

She put on a brave front, refused a pity party and did not inform her mother and her daughter about her illness. Her first chemo session was on March 28, 2016. Only then was she forced to take a sick leave after suffering from the side effects of her medicines.

After three weeks and two chemo sessions she started losing her hair. She eventually told her daughter about her cancer while she was searching online for where to buy a wig.

The cancer may have kept her from school, but the energetic Ruane was strong enough to drive for herself to the hospital and worked on some home projects such as bookshelves and roof gutter cleaning. She even performed at the 2nd UOG Masters of Public Administration Spring Showcase in May.

Help from family, friends, chemo buddies, dogs and professional hospital staff helped her bounce back and began teaching in Summer 2016.She chaired an international conference in Guam and resumed traveling to Honolulu during the same period.

Ruane said having the financial backing to afford her treatment helped a lot.

As an economist, she knew that someday she or a family member would get sick and maintained a health savings account.

“It took me up to two years to contribute to my HSA account. The HSA balance can be used only for eligible medical expenses not covered by your health insurance. I know it is challenging because it is lot easier and fun to spend than to save for something. Things are more difficult if you are saving for something that is not a sure thing like getting sick and with what kind of illness,” Dr. Ruane said.

Physical treatment for cancer is just part of the battle and with the increasing cost of cancer treatment, a cancer patient needs at least $10,000 a month for drugs alone.

Ruane said she doesn't need to hold a medical fund-raiser that was offered by one of her friends and passed on getting financial assistance from a local cancer organization.

Cancer is not only life threatening but also a financial disaster. According to the American Cancer Society, 30 percent of cancer survivors go into debt and three percent file for bankruptcy.

More than 15 million Americans living today have a cancer history. Ruane is one of the few who have not only won the battle, but also conquered the deadly disease without draining themselves or their family financially.


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