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Rebecca Libutti, 48, cancer`s tough foe

Posted on: 03/19/2004

Rebecca Libutti, 48, cancer's tough foe

Friday, March 19, 2004
Star-Ledger Staff

In 1993, when Rebecca Libutti was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer and told she had not much more than a year to live, she looked the doctor squarely in the eye and replied, "That's unacceptable."

Four years later, Mrs. Libutti wrote a book about her remarkable survival, a tome called "That's Unacceptable: Surviving a Brain Tumor, My Personal Story," that was chronicled in a story in The Star-Ledger.

But Mrs. Libutti was not finished defying the odds.

She lived almost another seven years, finally succumbing to the deadly cancer a week ago at Overlook Hospital in Summit.

"She was a fighter. She had a strong will to live," said her husband, Warren, who found the length of his wife's survival "remarkable." "If there was anybody who could do it, it was her."

A memorial service for Mrs. Libutti, 48, of Scotch Plains will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow in Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, 10 Norwood Drive, in Gillette. Arrangements are by the Higgins Home for Funerals in Watchung.

Mrs. Libutti not only survived brain cancer for almost 11 years, she became a counselor and inspiration to others with the same illness.

"I'd like to think of her as a pioneer in that she took the information she collected and evaluated and determined on her own by treatment and started advising others how to survive by doing what she did," her husband said. "She was a shining example of hope and survival to anyone who had this cancer."

"She was a remarkable woman," said Rob Tufel, executive director of the National Brain Tumor Foundation. "She was a person with incredible energy and incredible spirit."

Tufel said his organization had Mrs. Libutti as a guest speaker and referred hundreds of tumor victims to her over the years.

"She was an incredible resource. We referred people to her all the time," he said. "I think she touched hundreds of lives.

"I think Rebecca showed people that even in the most difficult situation, there is hope," Tufel added. "People live outside statistics. That's so important when you're confronted with a life-threatening illness: 'If she could do it, why can't I?'"

Mrs. Libutti was a vice president of marketing and an insurance agent for Mutual Benefit Life and The Guardian in Newark before retiring in 1993 when she was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a particularly virulent and aggressive brain tumor.

"She was given eight to 18 months to live. That was the statistical survival rate for that type of cancer," her husband said.

After the tumor was removed, Mrs. Libutti's cancer went into remission for years, stunning the doctors who had diagnosed and treated her.

"After they saw Rebecca survive at the rate she did, they were amazed," her husband said. "They said basically it was her and only her."

Mrs. Libutti had a recurrence 3 1/2 years ago and underwent a second surgery at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

"That gave her another 3 1/2 years, and she still survived on a recurrence longer than most people on the original tumor," her husband said.

He attributed his wife's will to live to her devotion to their daughter, Krystal Lee, who will graduate in June from Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School.

"I think the love a mother has for a daughter -- that was a big part of it," her husband said. "That kept her going most of the time. She never wanted to leave her."

Sharon Buntain of Mantoloking, who knew Mrs. Libutti for more than 30 years and was with her when she was diagnosed, said Krystal was the reason for her defiant attitude when told she was dying.

"She looked the doctor squarely in the eye and said, 'That's unacceptable. I have an 8-year-old little girl,'" Buntain said. "She wanted to see her daughter graduate from high school. Krystal doesn't graduate until June, but she came damn close!"

Buntain said Mrs. Libutti at least lived long enough to see her daughter accepted at Johnson & Wales, a noted culinary school in Rhode Island, where Kystal wants to pursue a career as an executive chef.

"She at least had the satisfaction of knowing that and was able to be her mother all the while she was growing up," she said.

Buntain, who is two years older than Mrs. Libutti, said her younger friend looked up to her all the years they were growing up.

"After she was diagnosed, the roles were reversed," she said, "and she became my hero."

Mrs. Libutti served on the board of directors of the Healing Exchange Brain Trust, an Internet support network for victims of brain tumors, and a tribute to her has been posted on the organization's Web site.

It ends this way: "Rebecca's passage is unacceptable. We will not accept it. We will continue our efforts with her spirit and guidance."

Born in Manchester, N.H., Mrs. Libutti lived in Roselle Park and Union before moving to Scotch Plains 20 years ago.

In addition to her husband and daughter, she is survived by her parents, Robert and Betty Tullgren of Manchester, N.H.; a brother, Brian R. Tullgren of Milford, N.H.; and two sisters, Jodi Labate of Westfield and Cindy Krisanda of Holderness, N.H.

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