Telling My Story for Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Viki ZarkinDuring my time working on Harrisburg’s Play for P.I.N.K. project, which I wrote about here, I was honored to get to know the people at Blue Cross, one of our event’s biggest sponsors. As our relationship grew, I shared my story with them, and they decided to highlight that story on their website here during Breast Cancer Awareness Month: http://capitalbluestore.com/blog/viki-zarkin/.

I hope you all enjoy it. Blue Cross is a wonderful company and has been very supportive of me. I’m so lucky to have had the chance to work with them.

P.I.N.K. & Perfect

I was thrilled to learn today that I’m paying it forward in ways I never imagined. Being enthusiastically acknowledged by my own stoic, unflappable oncologist was just icing on the cake. But, wait, I’m starting this story from the end. Let me start from the beginning.

Viki ZarkinThis is October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s the month where all of us who have breast cancer or have survived breast cancer take pride in ourselves and our pinkest finery and give with all our hearts whatever we are capable of giving. I’d decided many months ago that this was going to be my year!! It’s been my goal for so long to give back to those who have given so much to me.

Play for P.I.N.K. was the perfect opportunity for me to get my feet wet. Play for P.I.N.K. (Prevention. Immediate diagnosis. New technology. Knowledge.) is a national organization that donates 100% of the funds they raise to breast cancer research. I mean, how perfect is that??? Who needs research more than me and others out there like me!!!! The Bloomberg Group subsidizes all of the group’s admin expenses so, in my book, this separates them from the pack. One thing led to another, and with lots of elbow grease my little town of Harrisburg and I raised close to $100,000 for Play For PINK. Who’d have thought that 5-foot me could be such a large part of something so groundbreaking? I’d never helped organize or raise funds for anything on this scale before. But I didn’t let that stop me.

Just think what each one of us could do if we set our minds to it. What we all could accomplish in the name of breast cancer … in the name of research. Maybe, just maybe, we could cure cancer just by doing something during the month of October. Can you see how huge that could be? We are all so much more capable as human beings than any of us truly realizes. Can you imagine what the other 11 months could be like with that much change from 1 month a year? The chain reaction would be marvelous. I can feel the sunshine on my face just thinking about it.

So today, I went to Johns Hopkins, where I got my regular chemotherapy treatment and saw my oncologist. When I told the doctor about the money I’d raised for Play for P.I.N.K., he  turned away from his computer and looked at me as if with new eyes. His grateful reaction took me by surprise. This doctor — a quiet, serious man who once saw in me cancer so advanced that he told me to go home and die — was smiling.

“Viki,” he said, “you helped Johns Hopkins Hospital. We helped you, and now you’re helping us.” It turns out that he heads up a Play for P.I.N.K. research project. I was speechless. I really had no idea. What a small world, this cancer world.

So, he was saving my life, and now I was helping him to save others. Paying it forward. And getting so much in return. How incredible! Just one more reason to never give up!!

♥♥♥♥♥

p.s. Check out more of my story — and about the relationship between me and my doctor — at http://capitalbluestore.com/blog/viki-zarkin/

Blessings & Curses

Cancer has been both a both a blessing and a curse. Strange as that blessing part may sound, it’s true. At least it’s true for me. And I don’t mean it in that sentimental now-I-know-what’s-really-important-and-just-living-every-day-is-a-blessing kind of way. We’re talking practical blessings here. A lot of the time, strangely enough, they just happen to show up right in the middle of the curses. And a lot have shown up in the past couple of weeks.

Take my latest crazy PET scan. Enlarged liver, messed up lungs, yadda, yadda, yadda. But what it doesn’t show is the new lump I found. That’s where the blessing comes in. I don’t miss a thing going on in my body. Knowing your body from head to toe is your first line of defense. Always check yourself. Always go with your gut! I asked for a biopsy on the lump, and this time, I was lucky. Benign. But I believe in me. I will always trust my own instincts and never let my guard down. I am my best hope.

Another recent blessing-inside-a-curse involves my daughter. This summer, she’s been playing a lot of soccer. (Quite well, I might add.) A couple of weeks ago, her premier team had just won the championship, and she was pretty happy. Then she started getting sick. Normal flu-like symptoms, but she’s tough and didn’t complain a lot. It went on for about a week. She was feeling better as we headed for the beach, and while down there, she started getting terrible headaches and running a low-grade fever.

I started getting nervous. My antenna was up. I saw a rash on her back and rushed her to the emergency room. I’d never seen a bull’s-eye rash before, but i just knew. Even when others around me were downplaying the symptoms, I went with my gut. (To be fair to the others, the doctor had just given her a clean bill of health at a well visit, plus it seemed possible she was just having a reaction to vaccinations.)

Turns out, she had Lyme disease. It was diagnosed early, and she’s now on treatment and back playing soccer. Again another blessing: Cancer has given me not only medical knowledge but a certain strength — or courage, if you like — to not listen to anyone but myself! To believe in me and what my gut tells me to do. Had I not, my beautiful daughter might be facing a more serious illness. I sat on the beach the other day and watched my brave and lovely lion play in the sand and jump the waves with her long, red hair flying behind her. Tears ran down my face. I’m proud of me and the mother I have become. The mother with the courage to stand up for what I believe in and what I think is right. I’m going to pass that strength onto my daughter.

I’m not always so smart. Sometimes I think I’m superhuman and just want to forget I have cancer. It’s fun to forget once in a while, but not when it comes back to bite me!! Last week, I didn’t listen to my body and paid the price. I overdid it, got very sick, then went to my maintenance chemo session without telling my doctors I hadn’t been well. I knew if I told them, they wouldn’t have let me get the monthly dose of chemo I count on. I thought I could handle it. Now I know different. With my immune system compromised, I got VERY sick. Scary sick. Live and learn, they say.

As mothers we want to do everything and be everything for our families, but our bodies don’t always allow us to do those things. Be smart … listen to your body!!!!  I learned my limits for sure and with all my blessings, I don’t want to squander them. Like I always say, I’m the luckiest girl around. … I just happen to have cancer.

Mother’s Day has many meanings

Happy Mother’s day to all the mothers out there who are fighting the good fight.

That could mean so many things really. The obvious of course … a wish for those of us who are fighting cancer and struggling to be good moms every day while remaining brave and positive for our children.

It could also be meant for all those women out there who lift us up and help us be better — be stronger — moms. Or for the women out there who are praying for us when we cannot pray for ourselves. It is all these selfless women I stand with today.

Tomorrow, when we rush off to work or run to the gym, stop and say hello to the stranger we see every day during your morning commute. Reach out to our neighbors because they are reaching out to us. We never know how a kind smile or a warm hello could change someone’s day. Remember our bad days and smile. Isn’t that what Real Mothers do? Don’t we usually feel warm with memories of a mother’s touch or kind smile. Just think of the power we have as women. We are so remarkable.

I know one thing, I will live a lot longer if I smile than if I don’t.

It’s the Little Things

You know the familiar saying, “Stop and smell the roses”? Well, I’ve been doing a lot of that. Let’s say I’ve been enjoying the “little” things in life that I’m thinking aren’t so little at all.

  • My mom treated my family to a music performance recently that we all really enjoyed. The music blew through my body, and as I clapped with my children, I was completely in that moment. It was a lovely release.
  • My son refereed his first soccer tournament last weekend and my husband stayed in the background in the pouring rain to make sure no one yelled at him for a call they didn’t like. When they came home, 6 hours later, my son was so proud of himself. I looked over at my soaking wet Jere and I never loved him more. That’s a moment. Love between a father and a son. And what really touched me was finding out that my that son didn’t even know Jere was there because he was hiding to give him his grown-up moment. It’s the little things!!!
  • Some days, I just have to lie down in my bedroom, which is on the first floor of our house. Sometimes in the basement right below, I can hear my daughter singing really loud on her karaoke machine, learning all her new favorite songs. It’s music to my ears. I turn off the TV and just listen. It’s the little things.

It is important to open our senses to all that is around us. If we miss the here and now, we miss everything. We are all busy, but there is beauty everywhere. And if our eyes are always closed, well, we’re going to run into a lot of walls.

I learned about enjoying the small moments — taking things in, breathing, feeling the joy — from my family and the great friendships in my life. They have taught me how to open up my senses and reach for the minutes and seconds of each day.

My Michelle, who has known me the longest and loves me so deeply that she always knows when to give me my space. My friend Patty, who takes my Bella for the best shopping days and makes it a point to make regular coffee dates with me even though our paths don’t naturally cross anymore. My darling David, who makes me the most awful muffins … and who knows just how to make me laugh. My troops, Julie, Jill, Elizabeth, Dara, Robyn, Rebecca, Alyson, who I can always count on to do all the little things that only they can do! My school friends, who always are there to help me day to day and to lift me up when some days I just can’t go anymore … Kathy M., Amy B., Wendy F., Tracy S., and my new friend Kathy D., who always knows a “guy” to get exactly what I need done at the exact moment I need it done.

The little things in life — like the air we breathe, the change of seasons, the beauty of a butterfly flying free — I want to enjoy those things every day. I want to smell the good smells and the bad smells. I don’t want to miss a thing. I love life. I love my family. I love my friends. And I love the “little things.”

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p.s. On an unrelated note (though it’s really all related, isn’t it?), I’ve been doing some research for the past six months to find something – anything – to help me with the side effects of all the crazy chemicals running through my body. Lack of sleep, low energy, night sweats and more.

A mom with cancer who is trying to raise her kids can’t afford to sleep all day.

I discovered a nutritional system that has been a great benefit to me. The idea of promoting products on this blog makes me really uncomfortable, but if it’s something you think might be useful for you or someone you love, please contact me directly at stage4mom@gmail.com. This product has been effective for my symptoms, but I certainly can’t promise it’ll work for anyone else. And I’m in no way financially connected to this product.

The Cancer Attitude

I think there are certain personality types that maybe you are or you become that get you through cancer. (For what it’s worth, I think it’s been the latter for me.) You have to be a bit hard-headed, driven, determined … have tunnel vision, for sure. But most of all, I’ve discovered people with these personality types are too busy getting well to look back. What I mean is, now that I’ve been fighting for three years, one thing I recognize is that I’ve never really stopped to say “Oh, why me,” or “Let’s get angry at God.” Blah, blah, blah, what a waste of my time. All I’ve ever wanted (or want) to do is concentrate on the important things like being around for my children.

Needless to say, I’ve noticed that “we” (meaning those of us who have experienced cancer) stand in this unique position. Sometimes on the outside looking in. We experience things with different eyes. An openness that has no time or patience for anything but cutting right to the chase. For example, our school district (not unlike our government) is going through some growing pains. The community is divided and it is heartbreaking. Everyone is fighting. Everyone needs to be right or they can’t move forward. And the one thing that everyone seems to be missing is that the children are caught in the middle of their very adult struggle. If we could just throw a little cancer into their problems, they could see more clearly. Everything could be put aside, and the children would be what is most important again. Isn’t that a crazy thing to say?

It’s weird, I’ve just recovered from another surgery — I couldn’t even tell you what number it is because there have been far too many — and for the millionth time I’m trying to build up my battered body so I can be strong for my children. Because “we” understand that’s all that’s important in life! THAT IS ALL THAT MATTERS … and at the end of the day, it’s an accomplishment.

My awesome husband, Jere, even bought me a gym membership to help me recover. It’s the first time I’ve been in a gym in three years. Sooo much has changed. But instead of taking it slow like I should for so many reasons, I jumped on the treadmill with the “Bull in the China Shop, Tunnel Vision” attitude I now possess and WENT FOR IT!!  Now I’ll admit, it wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done. I did almost pass out … but HOW GLORIOUS!!! Tears streaming down my face, music blaring in my ears, looking like a lunatic and not caring! What a great feeling.

Compared to the tired person I was in my last post, it is so invigorating to just let it all go. I’m still the same girl that wakes up every day with cancer, but I’m a great mom and every day I make a small difference with my new attitude.

Tired. Just tired.

I’m so tired. I went for chemo today, I looked around the room, and I was just so, so tired. Even the nurses noticed I wasn’t my usual self. Yes, I am very grateful to still be alive, but I can’t help reflecting. It’s all taken such a toll on me. It’s been three years, and I still drive two hours to receive my treatment, get sick, walk it off, then get back in the car and drive the two hours back home. I repeat this every month. All the other patients come and go. No one is ever the same except for me.

I feel numb from it all. I feel defeated. I will continue to fight for a future with everything I have, but I see now that my future will always require tubes and needles and chemicals. It’s exhausting being me. Sometimes I feel like I could slip into a black hole. Of course, I never would, but it’s a heavy burden to carry. My children and family shine the light on my way forward — and I’m so grateful for that — but sometimes lately, when I’m alone, the dark starts to creep in. It’s like being out on the ocean in a small boat and paddling and paddling and paddling but never seeing land. Oh, and the boat has a leak.

I have another surgery scheduled for the end of the month. The pain of recovery and the new problems it usually brings are sometimes so difficult to bear. I don’t cry much because I’m always looking ahead, but tonight is different. As I write and share all this, I am in tears. I’m that tired.

I’ve put so much energy into not accepting my terminal diagnosis that it hit me only today that the tubes and chemicals are really the main reason I’m still alive. All that fighting I’ve done, and, yet, I’m still dependent on drugs, doctors and grueling treatments. I’m tired of being sick!

I am a positive person, so I don’t want the tone of this post to give you all the wrong impression. I believe it’s important to get the negative out sometimes so you can leave it behind. Even the toughest of us still cry. So taking that advice, I guess I will dry my eyes and head for bed. I have an awesome husband waiting for me there.

Time to put my big girl panties back on … my friends are dying out there and I am very blessed to still be HERE. Even when I’m tired.