On May 27, 2017, Ian Nietes Lariba was poised to take a flight to Germany, as she was set to compete in the 2017 World Table Tennis Championships which was to be held at Dusseldorf from May 29 to June 5.
Lariba never made the flight, however, as life threw a curveball at her.
“I was just diagnosed nung May 24, 2017 diyan sa Adventist Medical Center Manila. I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia by the doctors.”
The bad news was a stunning development for Lariba and her family. Roughly a year ago, the three-time UAAP champion had raised the Philippine flag and competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics in Brazil as the first-ever Filipina table tennis athlete participant.
Even prior to the official diagnosis, the Cagayan de Oro native had still competed in various local competitions and took part in training sessions for the Germany tournament ,although the signs were there.
“Before (the diagnosis), may mga symptoms na pala na inignore ko like the bruises, yung madali magpasa, excessive weight loss and then yung nahihilo,” recalled Lariba. “Marami ng nakapansin na pumayat daw ako.”
Lariba then took a blood test, the results of which changed the whole complexion of the scenario. “Dun nakita yung abnormalities kaya in-admit ako kaagad-agad. Kase yung sa blood count yung tinitignan kase dun yung red blood cells, white blood cells and then yung platelets.
“Nung nakita yung akin, halos lahat abnormal, not within the range. Yung RBC ko, hemoglobin, mababa sa range. Tapos yung nakita nila na very abnormal was yung white blood cells ko, very high. So yun nung nakita nila they did some tests pa like yung bone marrow aspirate and then dun nga nila nakita na it was positive for leukemia,” added the Finance graduate.
After three days in Adventist, Lariba was moved to St. Luke’s Medical Center in Quezon City where she was then confined for a month. “I was very prone to infection if ever lalabas ako. Nung nasa loob ako, lagi ako naka-mask tapos yung mga mag-visit din limited lang tapos kailangan din naka-mask, kasi nga yung sa akin cancer of the blood… very prone siya from infection from the outside.”
While in the Quezon City hospital, Lariba underwent leukoreduction to lessen her white blood count for four hours a day for three days. “Parang siyang dialysis,” recounted the 2016 Olympian.
After the leukoreduction, Lariba received chemotherapy to heal her from her cancer. “Hindi naman siya painful kase IV lang siya. Yung gamot niya is running for one week. After nun monitoring na (kase) after the chemo, ung blood counts ko is bababa talaga. Hindi naman ako nagsuka kasi there were pre-medicines.
“Fortunately hindi ko na-feel yung effect ng chemo na naghinihina. Parang nagulat yung mga doctors na may gana pa akong kumain tapos parang tumaba pa ako dahil sa chemotherapy. In total I had three chemotherapy sessions before ako nag-transplant,” expounded Lariba.
Following the leukoreduction and chemotherapy, Lariba was then transferred to St. Luke’s Medical Center in Bonifacio Global City for her bone marrow transplant, which she received from her younger sister Ina.
Lariba explained that the whole process took three hours and the transplant was given to her via a tube attached on her neck.
“Nag-birthday ako actually sa ospital. That was October 13. Kakatapos lang ng transplant ko October 7. So basically doon ako nag-celebrate with the nurses. Tapos na yung transplant mismo pero ngayon kumbaga yung treatment ngayon is oral medications,” annexed the Corpus Christi alumna.
Six months have passed since the doctors first identified the cancer that spread through Lariba’s body. While there have been considerable changes to Lariba’s body, she still is the simple, mabait and down-to-earth person those close to her described her to be.
“Actually yung recovery period, for me personally, I do it day by day during pa the treatment.
“I give myself time to recover mentally din. Kasi physically there are medicines coming, doctors’ guidance, monitoring, (but) I think the most important one is the mental and psychological recovery kasi if magpapadala ako sa sakit ko maybe it would put me down,” said Lariba.
It’s as if leukemia will never be able to conquer Lariba’s fighting spirit and natural kindness.
“Parang day by day I treat it as parang training lang din.
“‘Di ba (sa) training there are challenges everyday, I just have to overcome them throughout the day,” Lariba said. “At least at the end of the day, I get to stand up still. Parang nangyari sa akin I became more appreciative of the days that pass by.”
Boxing legend Muhammad Ali once said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” Lariba’s Olympic run breathed new life into the local table tennis scene and inspired young athletes to take up the sport.
It shouldn’t come to anyone’s surprise that the local and foreign table tennis communities, as well as her alma mater De La Salle University, immediately came to Lariba’s aid.
International table tennis stars auctioned items and composed a video for her, while there were local tournaments formed to raise funds for her. La Salle also raised funds for her via their #KayaMoYan shirts and dedicated their entire UAAP Season 80 campaign to her with the theme #LabanLaSalleYan. Others helped out by donating blood and money to her cause.
“Habang nasa ospital ako at nagbabasa ako ng mga messages, posts, parang nakaka-boost din na kailangan ko din galingan dito sa recovery ko para in a way maka-give back ako sa tinulong nila. The whole process malaking bagay yung motivation and encouraging words na binibigay nila in their own simple way,” said Lariba.
As of this writing, Lariba shared that she was on day 44 or 45 of her recovery after her bone marrow transplant operation. “After nung transplant, meron parang 100 days of preventive measures, monitoring. After 100 days, may reassessment ulit.”
Before she became an Olympian, Lariba had never lost a match in her five-year glorious UAAP career for La Salle. She won three gold medals and Most Valuable Player awards for Seasons 75, 77 and 78; saw two silver finishes for Seasons 74 and 76; and bagged the Season 74 Rookie of the Year gong.
Expect Lariba’s eventual victory over leukemia to be added to her list of achievements in life.
“Dream ko din maglaro internationally kasi yun nga iba pa rin pag na-expose ka internationally. I want to explore pa yung potential ko outside the Philippines.”