– Triathlete, Former Attorney, and Master Sugar Artist –
“It does not matter which place you finish…the key is to finish. And to Keep Fighting”
Ruth Rickey, a resident of Oklahoma City in the USA. She is a Certified Master Sugar Artist who travels the world teaching, demonstrating and judging cake competitions. She fell in love with cakes and became manager of an upscale grocery store in the city where she lives today. After 5 years, she was named top Bakery Manager for IGA’s 3200 stores in 31 countries and knew that it was time to open her own shop.
Everything was great in Ruth’s life, and even she opened Ruth’s Sweete Justice Bakery in 2000, but in March 2001 she was told what no one ever wants to hear…“You have cancer”. At that time, Ruth and her husband Rob were trying to have a baby. Ruth had just expanded her bakery and was working ridiculous numbers of hours. Stomach flu was going around and Ruth thought she had caught it. She was weak, had serious stomach pains and generally did not feel well. She kept working. Until she passed out every time she stood up and they convinced her to go to the doctor. Ruth went to the only doctor she had at the time, her thyroid doctor. He was at a loss for what she was experiencing and sent her for an ultrasound. It was immediately clear that a cyst in an ovary had ruptured and Ruth had been bleeding internally for days. She needed an immediate full hysterectomy.
Ruth was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. At that time, there was no viable treatment and no cure. It was a death sentence, usually within two years. She had just expanded her very busy bakery and could not conceive of death at that point. Ruth and Rob accepted that they would not have a child together and thought this was the worst news they could hear. Little did they know. Rob went home for the night and Ruth settled in at the hospital to await for surgery the next day. Again, Ruth thought this was the worst news she could hear. Then she learned that CML was not only incurable, it was not treatable. Chemo and radiation had no effect on it. The only thing they could give her was a pill that would make her feel like she had the flu, but would at least control her blood levels. She was given two to five years to live.
Ruth spent 2 1/2 weeks in the hospital. Her blood levels were so messed up that she continued to bleed internally after the hysterectomy. She had two more follow up surgeries and spent a few days in the ICU. When Ruth left the hospital, she weighed a mere 88 pounds. On her 5’8″ frame, she looked line the concentration camp victims. She was nothing but bones. She was wearing xl children’s clothing. A few days after going home, more pain arrived and Ruth needed to have her gallbladder removed. 4 surgeries in just over two weeks. And her battle was truly just beginning.
Ruth began blood work weekly to monitor her status. They were getting her strong enough to start the pill that would make her feel like she had the flu, when her miracle arrived. Six weeks after diagnosis, the FDA approved Gleevec – the first of the new type of cancer drugs. Gleevec first regulated her blood levels, then started to work on her bone marrow. Finally, a couple years later, she was told she was in cytogenetic remission, which means that the Philadelphia Chromosome doesn’t show up in my genetic analysis. While it is still there, the numbers are so miniscule that some days she gets to live life like normal. Ruth was the first patient in Oklahoma to start the drug. She did not lose her hair or have the typical chemo/radiation side effects. She was, however, covered in a head to toe rash. The rash did get better over time, but never completely went away. After a couple years on Gleevec, Ruth finally went into genetic remission. Even though she wasn’t cured, the Philadelphia Chromosome was so minimal that it could not be detected.
Ruth felt like she owed a huge debt to the LLS for the research that led to Gleevec. When a friend brought her son in to meet her (he had been diagnosed with leukemia and she wanted me to tell him he would be ok), she realized that she needed to do something. She got a flyer from Team in Training and began fundraising for the LLS. She completed full and half marathons and century rides, but really wanted to get the LLS Triple Crown by finishing a triathlon. She joined the Go Mitch Go Team to make that dream a reality. Ruth took on the challenge of Tinman Triathlon as part of her continuing efforts to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Her husband, Rob, decided to join her in this endurance event.
Ruth has struggled mightily with the swim. She could not get the breathing down and kept hyperventilating and having panic attacks. Her exercise-induced asthma would kick in and she was history. She became very good at saying “I can’t!” She learned how to quit in practice. One day she read something that talked about how the words you tell yourself determine how things go. All her joking about drowning and being a loser was not helping her get over my issues. She had to start giving herself positive messages or she was never going to make it.
Ruth’s sweet team knew how scared she was. Her local Coach Ryan Ellis, told John Whitaker that she was struggling with panic issues. John told the traveling coach, TriCoach Steve Blackmon. Steve called up the race organizers and convinced them that they should give her a swim escort. The race organizers had never done anything like this before. Coach Steve said it was time to meet her swim angel. They met up with race volunteers and Ruth met Carolyn, the sweetest, tiniest Hawaiian lady. She was going to be her escort. She is a lifeguard and excellent swimmer. Ruth cried as Steve hugged her and told her I could do it, before he left. “I should probably note that I am not scared of much…spiders, heights, cancer…no biggie. This got me,” she says. The night before the race, they had their inspirational pasta party for the Go Mitch Go team. GMG Foundation was formed by John and Tracy Whitaker to honor their son, Mitchell’s memory and to raise money to fight childhood leukemia. Mitchell’s last words were “Keep Fighting”. The Go Mitch Go team had raised over $130,000 towards research grants to prevent and treat childhood leukemia.
Into the water she went, tears running down her face. The gun went off and she started to swim. There were bodies touching, kicking, splashing me, even though she had tried to let most of the crowd go by. She began to worry. By the time she made it to the first buoy, the only thing she could think about was that she had to go in. She needed to get out of there. Ruth told Carolyn “I needed to quit”. She said no. About that time, her surfboard angel arrived. Joshua was a spotter and would let you hold the surfboard to catch your breath. Joshua said he was going to follow her on the entire course. She now had two angels. She kept going, resting as she needed, but beating down the panic the further she made it. Meanwhile, Rob’s wave was twelve minutes after her. He had told her he would come find Ruth in the water. She was determined to be so far ahead he couldn’t, but that didn’t happen. Ruth looked up, and there he was. Her third angel. Rob and Carolyn worked as a team, keeping her boxed between them so that she could spot better. Carolyn would swim ahead and have Ruth swim to her. Joshua would pull up and she would catch her breath. It felt like she was going forever and, she was incredibly exhausted. She began struggling from sheer fatigue, when Ruth glanced up and a rainbow appeared out of nowhere. It was exactly in her sight line and became her focus on the last 200 yards. She just knew it was meant to help her relax…About an hour after getting in the water, with tears running down her face, she got out of the water with Rob. They were the last ones to leave the swim course. I asked Tracy Whitaker if she saw the rainbow. She said, “Mitchell sent it for you”. I hugged her and we cried together.
From there, Rob and Ruth were so incredibly far behind the others that it was almost insane to continue. But we they. They rode their bikes. Then both headed out running for the last six miles. As they neared the finish, the team had spread out to greet them. They cheered their hearts out for them as they crossed the finish line. They treated them as though we were rock stars instead of the last folks to cross the finish line. And on that day, Ruth became a triathlete. “It does not matter where you finish…the key is to finish. And to Keep Fighting.” Ruth says.
Ruth is an ICES Certified Master Sugar Artist. Ruth has been seen on WE TV’s Wedding Cake Wars (her team won), twice on TLC’s Ultimate Cake Off (assistant to Pat Jacoby on two wins) and on three specials on The Food Network about The Oklahoma State Sugar Art Show. Ruth began SugarZen in 2012 to help reignite people’s passion for the sugar arts. It seemed that everywhere she went, she became a “sugar therapist” and helped people remember why they fell in love with cake decorating. Her blog is full of great advice on the subjects no one else touches! For more nformation, visit Ruth’s website: www.ruthrickey.com
Ruth is back in genetic remission today and pays this miracle forward by doing marathons, half marathons, century rides, triathlons and various charity events to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. For more information, please visit: www.lls.com The Go Mitch Go Foundation, founded in 2009 to honor the legacy of Mitchell Graham Whitaker, strives to raise money for lifesaving blood cancer research by supporting endurance athletes as they train. At Go Mitch Go we are committed to finding a cure for childhood blood cancers, raising awareness and assisting families battling cancer. For more information visit the following link: www.gomitchgo.com
Ruth in her own words
How does it feel to be an inspiration to others? Did you ever expect to become an inspiration?
I’ve been told repeatedly since diagnosis that I am an inspiration to others. That was never my goal…I just wanted to give others the miracles I’ve received. I’m now on my third version of the drug for CML and it hasn’t always been easy but I keep showing up and raising money. I work on two charity events to raise funds and awareness: www.RunLucky.com (a 5k in OKC) and www.TourdePalate.com (a wine and food tasting event in OKC). I know that just doing what I do encourages others to give back.
Why are Triathlons so inspiring? What makes this sport so special around the world?
I think I cry every time I watch the Kona stories. I think this is the ultimate test of an athlete. I can fake my way through a marathon or bike ride, but I have to actually prepare for a triathlon.
When did you start participating in triathlons? Where was your first competition?
My first and only so far was the Tinman Triathlon in Hawaii. I could not train this year due to side effects of my new leukemia drug. I’m hoping to return to training and make a stab at a half ironman in 2015.
What motivates you in life?
Getting a diagnosis like mine (no treatment, no cure) makes you really think about how you live your life. The stupid small things that bog others down just don’t matter anymore. You realize that you want to Live Big and Love Wide. Or at least I did. I will not leave this life with regrets.
What would you say to other people with similar ambitions?
I have CML, Addison’s Disease, Graves Disease and asthma. If I can do it, anyone can. Sometimes it truly helps to train for a cause…for something bigger than yourself. If you want to cross a finish line, there are wonderful programs out there to get you across.
Who inspires you? Why?
I’ve been inspired by many, but want to list John and Tracy Whitaker here. When their son died from Leukemia, they could have chosen to close out the world or be angry. Instead, they took his final words, “Keep Fighting” and decided to pay it forward. They won’t rest until there is a cure. Why should I?
How did you deal with obstacles in your life?
I tackle them head on. I fight my way through. Sometimes, the fight isn’t pretty, but I don’t give up easily.
What do you like most about Triathlons?
They make me feel alive.
Mention major accomplishments in your life other than triathlons
After diagnosis with leukemia, I went on to build a thriving bakery business, won several TV cake challenges, and now travel the world teaching sugar art to others. I think I was given this chance to keep moving around the world, inspiring others.