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The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

The Student News Site of Sacramento City College

The Express

One last chance

Cathy Speck, who has amytropic lateralsclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, spoke to professor Molyan's death and dying class located in Lilard Hall room 101. Tony Wallin | [email protected]

What would you do if you knew you had two to five years to live? Would you go skydiving? Follow your dreams of becoming a singer or someone well-known in your field? Cherish your friendships and family members?

These are all the things that 53-year-old former City College student Cathy Speck has accomplished in her life so far.

Speck spoke on March 14 to psychology professor Joanne Moylan-Aube’s class on “The Psychology of Death and Dying.”

As Speck strolled down the classroom aisle, she was aided by her walker, decorated with mini-stuffed animals and
purple streamers that hung from either sides of the handlebars and shimmered when they hit a certain light. With assistance from Moylan, silence filled the room as everyone focused on Speck as she moved to the front
of the classroom.

When Speck finally arrived, she looked at the class and said, “Death and dying is a serious matter,” and she then tooted the horn attached to her walker.

“Whoops, that wasn’t supposed to happen!” she said. The class let out a laugh and Speck said, “I am so happy and blessed to be here.”

In 2009, Speck was diagnosed with a rare but fatal disease called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS. ALS impacts the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord and causes them to stop working or responding properly.

Over a course of several years, a patient’s legs, arms, hands and mouth begin to stop working, and everyday skills such as going to bathroom, talking or eating become
difficult, Speck said.

While experts can’t pinpoint the cause of ALS, there is a 2 percent chance it is genetic, Speck said, which was the case for her family.

Speck’s mother was diagnosed with ALS at the age 49 and died at age 52 when Speck was 13, she says. Her brothers, Larry Speck, 60, and Paul Speck, 65, also both died from this disease.

Speck was born in 1955 in Davis, Calif. She attended Chico State to play basketball, but couldn’t play after a knee injury.

Eventually, she became depressed, stopped eating, began drinking heavily and mutilated her body by cutting her arms as a way to get through her college years.

At 25, she moved back to Davis and she saw a picture of herself at age 4. She said she remembered when she was happy and decided that’s how she wanted to be again.

She immediately enrolled at City College in 1986 and began taking classes in creative writing, choir, voice lessons and the one class that changed her life, “The Psychology of Death and Dying,” the course created and taught for 35 years by Tom Bruce, who retired last year.

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“The ‘Psychology of Death and Dying’ is really about how to live your life fully, with an open heart and open mind knowing there is an end to this crazy ride we call life,” says Moylan-Aube.

Speck’s experiences and positive attitude make her an ideal guest speaker for the class, Moylan-Aube said.

“Cathy brings an appreciation and joy of life that is contagious. Dying people have much to teach us. They are living while dying,” Moylan-Aube says.

After taking the class, Speck said she began to see life differently.

“I find love, happiness and hope wherever I go,” she said.

Even with knowing that ALS will eventually kill her, Speck said that she sees it in a different way.

“ALS is a gift,” said Speck. “I get the chance to say: I love you, I’m sorry, thank you, and I remember one time when…”

By speaking to the Death and Dying class, Speck was able to help give students a new perspective on the subject, said 21-year-old chemical engineering major Sean Mar.

“Life is to not be taken for granted,” said Mar. “It’s precious.”

For Speck, embodying that philosophy meant following one of her lifelong dreams.

After dreaming of becoming a singer/songwriter, Speck and her wife, Linda Duval, started recording as a duo in 1993 and have since released several CDs. The most recent album is titled “Afterlife” by Duval Speck.

Although ALS may limit some of her capabilities, Speck said she tries to live her life to its fullest.

“I am going to die happy,” said Speck.

To get involved or help volunteer for ALS walks, see the website, or follow Speck’s blog at

Additional reporting by Wendy Aguilar

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