WOS 2012: Joy – Rowena Gungon Niduaza, A Voice for Gratitude

Story by Lalaine Chu-Benitez

Photography: Eros Goze

Hair and Make-Up: Frankie Melendez


Rowena Gungon Niduaza brought pride to the Filipino community when she won the Toastmaster Competition in the UAE in 2005. That win took her to Jordan where she competed with winners from all over the Middle East.  There, she ultimately took the top prize, and became the first Middle East representative to the 2005 Toastmasters International Convention for World Championship in Public Speaking in Toronto, Canada.

That feat seems significant enough.  In reality, however, what’s even more significant was Rowena’s triumph on another level – how her win allowed her to keep a sacred promise and mend old wounds with her family.

Rowena had a flourishing career as a design and retail professional in the emirates. Just like most career women, she was consumed by a demanding job, while juggling motherhood, her work taking much of her time from her family, especially in lieu of frequent travels.  She was stopped in her tracks when she was suddenly diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1995.  Rowena and her husband were devastated. She shares, “I prayed as I’ve never prayed before. I asked for another chance in life – to live a life more meaningful and to live with a purpose. That moment made me realize how lucky I was for having such a loving husband, wonderful kids and a beautiful life. I cried but then I thanked God for all that He had given me. Everything, including my cancer.

Ironically, going through that difficult period, turned into a breakthrough for her. Suddenly, she was forced to look at life differently and her priorities appeared clearer.  “I realized then that the substance of life is not about [work] success, but about the little things you see every day.”

Around the same time Rowena’s father, who was estranged from the family, died all alone in the Philippines. The loss was a deep source of regret for Rowena, and it created resentment from her dad’s family.

Come her day of surgery, little did Rowena know that she was fated to experience her very own miracle. After several tests at various hospitals confirming her illness, for some reason the doctors were not able to find any cancer cells and she was declared well.

Furthermore, having been told by doctors that her ovaries have been totally damaged, she was amazed that she became pregnant with her third child after five years. Rowena declares, “A thankful heart had not only healed my cancer but had also given me another gift, another life.”  

Ecstatic that she was given a new lease on life, Rowena recounted, “I made a promise to God to share my story and His message of love. My only request from Him was to bring me where He wanted me to share that story.”

As though it were a part of a grand plan, Rowena’s opportunity to fulfill that promise came when she got into the Toastmaster championships.  Her speeches in Jordan, entitled, “Why” and “Two Words” chronicled her journey through cancer and the unfolding of blessings and gratefulness she experienced in the process.  Her words resonated so much with the audience that many wept.

The fact that a Filipina claimed the top award, in a place where Filipinas were greatly looked down upon, made the moment even more meaningful.  “I stood there as a Filipina in a place where our women were referred to as ‘kamsa-kamsa’ [meaning five-five, it is a derogatory term to mean ‘cheap’ – Ed]. It gave me tremendous satisfaction to hold my head up high and see that everybody was applauding a Filipina.”

As she accepted her award, Rowena touched her locket which contained her father’s ashes and silently promised him that her speech at the World Championship in Public Speaking would be for him.

She didn’t win the competition, but her speech “My Father” gave her the chance to say things that were not said while her father was still alive and be heard by relatives who attended the event. Rowena emerged winning so much more – reconciliation with her family.

She said, “All this time in these competitions, I never really hoped to win.  I went there to fulfill my promise – to share God’s work and mend ties with my family. And thank God that He gave me a way.”

These days, Rowena makes it a point to celebrate life each day, focusing on her family and making sure that they constantly feel her love.

The specter of cancer has revisited her once again, but Rowena who participates in a cancer support group, will not let it bring her down.  She says thoughtfully, “For me, having the cancer was an advantage.  I was given a warning. I was able to prepare myself and my loved ones and be conscious enough to live right. All of us are going to die eventually and that can happen anytime without us knowing.”

More than anything else, she’s gained, is the gift of a deeper spiritual understanding which she shares with anybody who would care to listen. “Believe that there’s always a reason, a meaning for everything… it’s just like when the wind blows…we can’t see but we can feel it.