VALRICO - Ruthann Dahlquist's smile is warm and bright. She considers life a gift, even though hers has been challenge-filled since birth.
To encourage others not to give up, the 64-year-old Valrico resident wrote her life story in rhyme and distributes printed copies to people she meets.
Dahlquist, born in Lawrenceville, Penn., with a cleft lip and cleft palate, underwent 12 surgeries in 12 years.
A school that was to give her speech therapy instead taught her sign language. Her signing and facial malformation led to her being misunderstood by her peers and a target for bullies. Her childhood was "terrible," she said.
But life got better. She married and had two children, Rachel Kowasic of Valrico and Mark Huddy of Riverview. She earned an associate's degree in her 40s and worked at a bank.
In 1996, she was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer. In 2009, unending headaches revealed a cancerous brain tumor.
Radiation that eliminated the tumor obliterated her optic nerve and rendered her completely blind, said Kowasic. Treatments contributed to medically induced dementia.
In May, she suffered a stroke.
Dahlquist wants people to read her poem, "because I don't want them to think that because they're sick they have to give up," she said. "When they give up, they pass away. You don't have to pass away yet. It's not your time. You can exercise and pray."
Dahlquist works out three times a week at the Campo Family YMCA, participating in a yoga class, water aerobics and the Livestrong program for cancer survivors.
She gets around with help from her husband, Ray, her children and several other family members who moved to Florida to support her.
"I believe there's a reason for all this," said Kowasic. "God is using my mom to share the good news and to show people this isn't the end. [It's] brought her whole family together."
Family, in turn, motivates Dahlquist.
"I'm not ready to go," said Dahlquist. "I have grandkids I have to see through."
For a copy of Dahlquist's poem, contact Kowasic at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Send stories of community interest to Barbara Routen at Neighbors@tampabay.rr.com.