Faces of Cancer: Richland woman won't let cancer get her down

By Andy Perdue, Tri-City HeraldOctober 14, 2011 

The first time Laurel Piippo of Richland was diagnosed with cancer in 1988, she figured she was a goner. She even picked out the music for her funeral and wrote her obituary.

But 23 years later and two more bouts of cancer behind her, that obituary is badly out of date -- and Piippo, 84, has no plans to update it because she is just too ornery to die.

"I am obviously unkillable!" she said with a hearty laugh.

Piippo and her husband moved to the Tri-Cities in 1951 from Marysville, where they both were teachers. In 1962, she began teaching English at Kennewick High School and retired in 1982. Since then, she has perhaps been best known for her prolific travels -- she's been to more than 100 countries and has written about her adventures in the Herald.

One day in 1988, Piippo had an unexpected adventure. She woke up, stretched her arms, scratched herself -- and felt a lump on her left breast. She went to her doctor, who outlined a course of treatment.

"I said, 'You're not whacking off my breast until after the New Year's Eve party,' so I had my surgery on Jan. 2, 1989," Piippo said in her usual defiant tone.

She also endured six months of chemotherapy treatments and had 18 lymph glands removed, three of which were cancerous. Upon recovery, she resumed her travels and met a woman in Czechoslovakia who had survived lung cancer and happened to tell Piippo about an alternative treatment she'd received in Canada. After Piippo returned home, a routine chest X-ray showed a suspicious spot.

"Three doctors said, 'Wait and see.' I said I wasn't going to wait and see, so I went to Virginia Mason (in Seattle). They did two biopsies and found a malignant tumor."

Though she wasn't a smoker, she had lung cancer and underwent surgery in 1990 to remove her lower left lung. Her doctors didn't prescribe any follow-up treatment, which left the indomitable Piippo uneasy, so she wrote to her new friend in Czechoslovakia, then flew to Ottawa three times in the winter of 1990-91 to receive treatments from a doctor who had developed a controversial vaccine against lung cancer.

"People ask, 'Did it work?' " Piippo said. "Well, I'm not talking to you from the grave, am I?"

Piippo mostly was annoyed that she had to cancel an around-the-world tour to eradicate the lung cancer. In 1993, she was even more exasperated when she had to cancel an opera trip to Europe when cancer appeared on her right breast. She endured surgery and 35 radiation treatments for it.

Piippo has been free of cancer since 1993, and she relishes a carpe diem approach to each day.

"I was having cancer right and left -- literally!" she said. "It was interfering with my life. Having cancer three times is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. It's a nuisance, a challenge, something you have to deal with. But it was also kind of an adventure. It taught me to be nice to my body, to quit thinking I was in control. My body has been a good and faithful servant. Now, I need to take care of it."

-- Andy Perdue: 582-1405; aperdue@tricityherald.com.

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