Liz Rusnak Arizmendi is a lot of things to a lot of people.
She is Rusnak Auto Group’s vice president of public relations, philanthropist, athlete, mother extraordinaire, wife and partner to a high school sweetheart, loyal daughter, sister and friend.
Now, she is also a cancer warrior.
It’s not a title the former competitive water skier ever expected to hang from her hat, but one Rusnak Arizmendi embraces like almost everything: Full speed ahead.
She was declared cancer-free recently after a surprise ovarian Stage 3 cancer diagnosis some six months ago. She then battled the race of her life, enduring a total hysterectomy and partial colon removal, followed by 18 chemotherapy sessions in five months.
“The cancer never scared me, it wasn’t going to define me or rule my life,” she said. “I think we relate it to what we know — for me the athlete in me came out and it was almost like a race. My nephew even told me ‘I feel sorry for the cancer,’ because if anybody was going to beat this, I was.”
Rusnak Arizmendi’s strength and resilience, along with the Rusnak Auto Group, will be honored by the Cancer Support Community Pasadena on Saturday evening, April 8, at the organization’s 25th annual Angel Gala. The gathering is the group’s biggest fundraiser of the year, raising money for CSCP, which provides free services to cancer patients and their family members, including support groups, educational workshops and mind-body programs. With a “no one should face cancer alone” philosophy, the nonprofit serves more than 2,000 people in the greater Pasadena community annually.
Even before her cancer diagnosis, Rusnak Arizmendi, 54, and the Rusnak Auto Group were longtime supporters of the CSCP. Rusnak Arizmendi, who graduated from Mayfield Senior School and USC, became familiar with the group’s services when a dear friend was dying, she said, and has been an ardent supporter ever since.
“We were always planning to honor her — she and the Rusnak group have been crucial to our operations. I don’t know what we would do without them,” said Meg Symes, CSCP executive director. “Liz has more energy than anybody I’ve ever known. She’s a fighter and knows how to rally, and if she gets behind you, you are in good shape.”
Though always a supporter of CSCP, Rusnak Arimendi has a new-found appreciation for the group’s services after her own, very personal cancer battle.
The diagnoses came as a total shock to the energetic public relations guru.
“It never would occur to me
that I had cancer. I run, I play tennis, I water ski, I eat right, I’m trim, I never had any pain,” she said, noting most importantly, she had no family history of ovarian cancer.
The diagnosis came almost by pure luck after an annual doctor’s exam.
“We were chatting afterward, and I mentioned to my doctor that I had just been feeling a little chunky in the tummy,” she recalled, recognizing that the comment then seemed a little silly to those around her, given her super-toned physique and sculpted stomach.
In retrospect, those words saved her life.
“What I learned is: Listen to your body,” she said.
Upon further examination, the doctor found a small tumor on her ovary, leading to a hysterectomy. But what was a planned 90-minute surgery turned into an eight-hour-plus ordeal after they found cancer throughout the uterus and on the upper colon.
The chemotherapy sessions that followed left Rusnak Arizmendi, even now, without words to describe the ordeal.
“I was a gray ghost,” she said, tearing up at the memory of what was to be one of her last chemo sessions. “I had no feeling left. It turned out, my body was too full of chemo to take anymore. But I was there; I was willing.”
One of Rusnak Arizmendi’s closest friends, Anthony Guthmiller, sat down with her recently to discuss her journey this past year and the upcoming CSCP gala. Guthmiller said he thought the hardest part of her having cancer and undergoing treatment was “Liz being able to let go.”
Active in multiple organizations within Pasadena’s philanthropic community, and as a true public relations professional, Rusnak Arizmendi suddenly had to stop her frenetic schedule.
“This has been a real lesson in receiving for her,” Guthmiller said. “Everything she does has a philanthropic bend to it, but this has been a period about her, about her recovery. She had to let other people take care of her.”
He stepped in to help coordinate the gala at Rusnak Arizmendi’s request, who, even throughout her treatment, has never been far from the planning process or gathering items for the gala’s auction event.
This year will be one of the biggest in the event’s history, taking up the entire 51st floor of the City Club in downtown Los Angeles and having a new fundraising record goal of $400,000. With a sold-out invitation list of 370 people, they are also adding a “reception-only” ticket for 6-7:30 p.m. for $150.
“This will allow people to get their feet wet and become familiar with Cancer Support Community without committing to the entire evening,” Guthmiller said.
As to Rusnak Arizmendi and the Rusnak Auto Group being the Angel Gala nominee, she said that after her journey that she has a new appreciation of the support network CSCP provides to those unable to afford it.
“I’ve been so fortunate to have all the resources come to me and facilitate my needs in my private home, and to have the best support network anyone could,” she said, noting that her family, friends and the community rallied behind her.
One of her best caregivers is her husband, Andrew Arizmendi, who also is the general manager at the Rusnak Auto Group. He said while the initial shock of the cancer was “a total sucker punch,” the family dug down and focused.
“It really brought out our (wedding) vows, because throughout our marriage, we had never thought about the ‘through sickness and health’ part,” Andrew said. “It was brutal. Everyone knows about cancer, but not until you or someone you love gets it, do you really learn about cancer. But Liz is one tough woman. She has the energy of five people. If anyone was going to muscle through it, it was going to be her.”
Andrew said that with their daughter, Isabella, off to college in the fall, he would like to take some time off with his wife.
“I’d like to see what we can do together, maybe see the world a bit … we dodged a big bullet, so we really want to take some time.”
Isabella has used her mother’s example as a lesson in life. The Mayfield School senior wrote about her mother’s battle on a few college essays, naming one, ‘Grit.’”
“It changes you … I’ve learned a lot about myself,” said the 18-year-old, who is considering college in North Carolina. “I’ve learned that I can be a nurturer — that I’m good at that and my mom could depend on me to make her feel better.”
Liz also is reflecting on her new future. This year is still a road to recovery from the operation and chemotherapy, with some pain, numbness and inability to taste to be expected. Her energy levels, while improving, may not recover anytime soon.
“I’m going to slow down, and just try to take some more time for me,” she said.
When asked if the renowned perfectionist in her will let things slide a little more, she quickly answered with a wink.
“Oh no. I’m going to delegate more.”