Irene Dimatulac learned of the tumor in her left leg in a TC stairwell conversation with the doctor who'd rung her cell five times in the middle of a Speech-Language Pathology class.
Further testing diagnosed osteosarcoma — a conclusion delivered to Dimatulac on Valentine's Day, 2020.
Dimatulac, a master’s student in TC’s Communication Sciences and Disorders program, spent the remainder of the day sharing the news with friends and family here and in the Philippines. “I just needed to talk it out,” she says.
With that a relentless battle to best cancer was waged — with a vengeance.
Eleven months of chemo and three major surgeries later, Dimatulac returned to class (virtually) with a prosthetic knee and a renewed sense of purpose in the pursuit of her degree and a future helping patients rehabilitate the loss of speech as a result of an illness or accident.
“[Cancer] is a powerful empathy tool,” says Dimatulac. “I know what it is like to have a trajectory in life that goes where you didn't expect it to go.”
An avid hiker and rock climber Dimatulac at first passed off the knee soreness to over-exertion or a slight muscle pull. “I thought I'd over-extended it while doing squats,” she says. When the discomfort worsened on a Hawaiian hiking trip Dimatulac sought treatment from the orthopedist who, sensing a more complex problem, suggested she consult an oncologist.
The diagnosis, osteosarcoma, primarily affects children and young adults.
The first operation, the removal of Dimatulac's knee at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, coincided with the exact moment Covid was locking down New York and the nation.
The irony was not lost on Dimatulac. “Everyone wanted to be there for me,” she recalls. “And the best way to support me was to stay away from me.”
Dimatulac's TC classmates from a distance did the next best thing by establishing GoFundMe account to defray her expenses while undergoing care at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. Donors included faculty members.
“I’m very fortunate to be part of a TC program filled with experienced and compassionate clinicians — compassion not only for our patients but for the students as well,” she says.
Born and raised in Queens, Dimatulac entered Hunter College as a pre-med psychology major. She loved psychology. Pre-med?
Not so much. “I hated it,” she says.
A conversation with an acquaintance holding a TC degree in speech pathology opened Dimatulac to the possibility of compassionate care outside the medical field.
“Wow,” she thought. “I can help people by talking — and I love talking. This will be great.”
Enrolling at TC after a gap year teaching in South Korea, Dimatulac knew from the get-go that she'd wisely followed the instinct to major in speech pathology.
Cancer set her planned graduation date back 12 months, to May, 2022.
The reopening of campus signaled a full academic recovery from the disease that sidelined Dimatulac for nearly a year. A return to rock climbing will take a bit longer.
“I’m starting to slowly walk up steps to prepare for walking at graduation,” she says.
Rock climbing — an activity that once helped her overcome a fear of heights — became a metaphor as Dimatulac soldiered through multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and an experimental drug regimen.
“A rock climber has to be very conscious about knots and harnesses. Most of all, it requires faith in the person holding your rope,” Dimatulac says.
“Having faith in my preparation meant letting go of the fear. Doing everything right allowed me to melt into the situation and enjoy the moment. I am keeping my eyes forward.”