Author: Viki Z.

Is it just my imagination? I need to know now

Imagination is a funny thing. As a parent, I’ve loved watching my children at their various stages of development using their imagination in the most remarkable ways. Imagining they are fighting dragons with swords or hosting tea parties filled with impressive people. And as they grow, their imagination grows with them. Imagining they will score the winning goal on the soccer field and be carried off to the roar of the crowd, or playing piano for kings and queens. How marvelous!!!

But for me, not so much. Lately my imagination has been running wild with scenarios no one should have to imagine. A couple of weeks ago, I got a bad PET scan. Not a good thing for a stage 4 cancer patient. Of course, the doctors want to put me through stages of grueling tests to rule out this and that, but I already know. … Or do I? Is it my imagination running wild or is the cancer really back?

I am a fighter not willing to sit around and wait for them to take more tests and compare this to that, so I must find the truth quickly. I don’t have the luxury that children do to allow my imagination to run wild. I must push my doctors to upturn every stone. I need to know what I’m up against.

I realize this is probably not a good thing, but I am in battle mode now. I have my sword out, and the fighting begins again.

To Our Beloved Beverly

One of the most beloved people in my life passed away this week from this cruel decease called cancer. My family feels gutted, heartbroken and completely sad. We watched her pass little by little. My children and I sat by her bedside and talked to her, kissed her and held her hand. I went there every day and put her lipstick on her, fixed her hair and told stories about our shared glory days. She’s really the only grandmother my children ever had other than my terrific mom. Both my husband’s parents are gone.

As I watch my children, I can see in their eyes the deep fear that this is going to be their mom someday. They worry that it will be them someday. And I understand because I worry and struggle with the same thoughts. This has wrecked us … depleted us. We are left with memories twirling in our brains.

It’s so difficult to not make comparisons. Seeing yourself lying there helpless while people come and go and look upon you, cry or hold your hand. I wondered if she was inside there shouting at us all to leave her alone. To stop looking down on her like a fish in a fish bowl. TO GET OUT.

When I was in the hospital in January, it was Beverly who flew in from FLORIDA to care for my children when I couldn’t. We noticed then that something wasn’t right. We never expected brain cancer. We loved her very much.

Today I am more frightened for what I have seen than I was yesterday, so I’m looking forward to that “Time Thing” that they say heals all wounds. But I feel doubtful that this experience won’t leave inside us and will feed on the fear we all share for me and my own lifespan.

Today Mark, Beverly’s husband, sleeps next to a shirt of hers that sleeps placed on the pillow next to his. I wonder about my own husband. I wonder about my children. Today I am not so strong … I am frightened.

Coming Out of Hibernation

It’s been a while.

I know some of you must be wondering why I haven’t posted in awhile, and I do apologize for that. I have been healing from major surgery and finding my new normal.  They say God doesn’t give you more than you can handle … well, God must think I’m a real Bad Ass!!

sunheartIt’s been quite an uphill battle these last few months, and, as spring comes in, I am beginning to emerge from my hibernation. I will say that from the minute I started getting back on my feet, my friends and family have been so happy to see me. I am so fortunate. I show up at a girlfriend’s birthday party or a friends Bat Mitzvah and I’m greeted with such warmth. Maybe because I’m sick I notice everything more, but I look into my friends eyes and there is such genuine pleasure for me, that I am doing well and out and about. I know I have said this before, but I’m so blessed.

As I turn another year older — or, to be more precise, as I turn another year older surviving with cancer — I am grateful for the new year. Grateful that, despite all that the doctors have told me, I am able to celebrate another birthday. It’s funny because if anyone would have ever said I’d be happy to be 48, I would have thought they were high. So today I not only celebrate another year but I celebrate joining my family at the dinner table again. I celebrate attending my kids soccer games and volunteering at their schools. I treasure getting back outside and starting to walk again with the air on my face and my music blaring in my ears. I look forward to going to the movies and out to dinner with my husband. And I love shopping with my mom.

So just a little advice …  when your head hits your pillow tonight, dream of your children laughing, dream of a beautiful sunny day, dream of that perfect ice cream cone and dream of another day.

Living … for the big events and everything in between

Two years ago, right around this time, my doctors told me that I wouldn’t be alive for long. Wow, what a pill to swallow. You see, I was talking to the doctor about my son’s Bar Mitzvah and how it was set for November of 2012 … and he said I wouldn’t make it. He was saying that I wouldn’t see my son on the day he would become a man in the eyes of Jewish law, not to mention all the other things I wouldn’t be here for. But I was determined to prove him wrong. That very day, after I left the doctor’s office, I went home and put down a deposit on a venue for my son’s party.

Viki and Dell on the day after the Bar Mitzvah

Viki and Dell are all smiles on the day after the Bar Mitzvah

And, as you might have noticed, I’M STILL HERE! Last week, I stood on the pulpit with my son and my family and witnessed my son become a Bar Mitzvah. The emotions that I have experienced in the past week are unforgettable. I’m here today to tell the world how proud I am of my son, my family and myself. How surreal is that?!

I will remember that day as one of the greatest in my life. I was surrounded by my family and friends who love me. I could feel their emotions too, pulling me into their warmth and willing me to make my future dreams come true.

I danced!! I did … I danced and laughed and really enjoyed myself. I have been planning this event for two years, and it was everything that I wanted it to be and more. It was such a fun party. Dell had a great time with his friends, and every time I looked at him, he was shining. I think he may have changed a bit himself that day. Today, he seems to walk with more confidence. I think he’s going to be OK. He will make a fine man someday. And no matter what my future holds, no one can take away my part in helping my son grow into the kind of man that would make any mom proud.

Now, as I bask in the warm glow of memories of that day, one thing is clear about the past two years. Having that important event to look forward to gave me huge incentive to drive myself harder and harder every day so I could be there for my son. There wasn’t anything that would prevent me from keeping my promise to my son that I was going to share that special day in his life.

My daughter turned 10 last week, which means her Bat Mitzvah is in three years. The year 2015. I can do this. I know this goal is further away than the first one was, but I’m very capable when I set my mind on something. Besides, I’ve always treated my children equally … why would I change that now? If I was there for Dell’s big day, I must now be there for Bella’s big day as well. So as I write this today, I’m making a promise to myself, my daughter and to my family that I will do whatever it takes to be here on this earth for her special day. Everyone out there who may be reading this, I ask you to help me push forward and continue to keep the inner strength that I know I possess to keep my promise to my daughter.

Family and big family moments are what drive me forward. And it’s also important for me to have a focus within a focus. What I mean by that is, I wake up every day and I walk when it hurts and I take my meds that make me sick and I go about my day with positive energy and joy that today is Monday or Tuesday.

But, make no mistake, I will also wake up and mark my calendar and think, “OK, how many days until Bella’s Bat Mitzvah? Is there anything I need to book or order in advance to ensure her a perfect day? Because her mom is going to enjoy another family moment.” Because her mom is strong!!

Life, Cancer and the Hamster Wheel

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Just when you think life is starting to calm down as much as life can calm down with Stage 4 cancer, something throws you another challenge, just to see if you’re paying attention. Isn’t that Murphy’s Law … anything that can go wrong will?? Well that seems to be my life now … and maybe always has been, even before cancer. Here’s how the latest Murphy’s Law episode goes:

A couple of months ago, I’m finally starting to feel better, I’m walking up to a mile-and-a-half a day and getting organized for my son’s Bar Mitzvah. Then — bam! — my oncologist tells me I have chronic tonsillitis and it’s affecting my immune system. They gotta go, he says. Are you kidding me????!!!!!!!!

So here I sit today, recovering from yet another surgery. What a difficult procedure this was. The pain … oh my. Sometimes I feel like a hamster on one of those wheels and I just go round and around and get absolutely nowhere. Frustration is what I feel the most. I have so much to do. My children started school, and here’s yet another year that I’m missing their open houses and missing more soccer games. Boy does this get old fast!

Now, if I choose to look at the situation differently, I could say this has been the best diet I’ve ever had. Holy cow, even if I wanted to eat … it hurts. How cool is that??!!! My son’s bar mitzvah might not be organized and I might not be able to speak to anyone during the event but, damn, I’m gonna look good! I think I’m gonna have to have my dress altered. How screwed up is that thinking??

Well, screwed up or not, I’m looking forward to getting out of this bed and back to my active life. Getting back on that hamster wheel until the next bump knocks me off … then I’ll get back on and start all over again. Because that’s my life now, and I need to go with the flow. It doesn’t necessarily make it easier to understand, or always seem fair, but I’m lucky that I’m strong and tenacious enough to keep getting on the wheel.

A Different Kind of Bucket List

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t think of all the things I haven’t done yet or all the things I need to get done. I thought of my family. Because I have young children, my first thoughts were of them. Wanting to see them grow up, to become responsible adults … and know I had something to do with that. My dreams have been concrete: of weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, of first dates, of my son’s first shave, of my daughter’s first period, of teaching them both to drive. It was never of all the places I may have once dreamed of going. As a mom with young kids and cancer, I look at things differently than I might at another stage of life. Sure, I used to dream of the places I wanted to travel to when my kids were off to college and I didn’t need to work anymore. But then I got cancer and just didn’t care about that anymore.

Not only are my priorities wrapped up in my children, but so are my finances. Cancer, if you don’t already know, is an extremely expensive disease. There’s the loss of work and income, the health and drug expenses and so on. So concern for my children’s financial future also plays a part in my life plan. All I ever wanted was to have my family secure and happy and be there to take part in it.

But a girl can always dream, can’t she?!! Almost every summer since I was a kid myself, my family has gone to the beach. As a child, it’s a wonderful happy time to run in the sand and play in the water. And as a parent, it’s wonderful to watch your children have those moments. So one of the things I had long wanted to do was go to the beach for longer than a week. (I could rarely get off work for more than that). Last summer, I was knee deep in radiation treatments in Indiana, which means our family hasn’t been to the beach — or barely anywhere, for that matter — in two years. We really deserved a break!

So awhile ago, I started to plot. Now that I’m on maintenance chemo, it finally seemed possible. I spoke with my doctors about rearranging my meds so that I could take some time off. Everyone pulled together to make this happen. At the beginning of July, I grabbed the family and our new puppy, headed to the beach, and didn’t come back until the months end. What a glorious time we had!! The kids buried themselves in the sand, jumped the ocean waves and ate all the junk food they could stomach. I got to put my feet in the sand and feel the ocean spray on my face. I even went down the volcano water slides with my kids and husband!!!!

Poor Jere was so worried because sun and someone who’s just been through radiation don’t exactly mix, but I wore my goofy hat with pride and sat under two umbrellas and had the time of my life. My kids would ask me, “What are our plans for today, Mom?” and I would answer, “ANYTHING WE WANT THEM TO BE!!!!” What a contrast to our day-to-day life that is usually overscheduled with either my doctor appointments or their activities. And the best part was, if they wanted to change their minds, they could. We were free to do anything we wanted. It was glorious.

Though I’m home now and back to all my doctor appointments and busy schedule, I can still close my eyes and smell the ocean breeze on my face. I smile. I may not have a bucket list, but I sure did make a dream come true this summer … cancer and all.

Weighty Issues


I decided to go to a cancer dietitian. I’ve been so confused about what are the right foods to eat and what aren’t. Take milk, for example. For the past year, I’ve been drinking soy milk because I was told cow’s milk and dairy products aren’t good for cancer patients. Then I find out that soy milk is loaded with estrogen, which doesn’t seem like such a good thing for someone whose breast cancer is estrogen-driven. So I went to the specialist and really learned a lot.

The first thing I learned was that, yes, soy does have estrogen … but it’s still better then cow’s milk and there’s not enough estrogen in it to really be harmful to me.  But, if I’m still worried, almond milk makes a nice alternative.

And, I wanted to know, just how important is it to eat organic? I mean, I want to eat what’s good for me, but I don’t want to go broke. Here’s what the dietician’s advice basically comes down to:

  • Spend your money on organic, grass-fed chicken and turkey (corn has lots of hormones that are bad for cancer patients). Wild-caught fish is worth it, too.
  • Save your money on vegetables and fruit by buying only in-season and locally grown. When you stick to the stuff grown close to home, she said, there’s no compelling reason to buy organic. It’s less costly and more healthy. The reason you want to stay away from out-of-season produce — even if it’s labeled organic — is because chances are it’s from out of the country and you never know what “organic” means on produce grown outside the United States.
  • Eating nutrients from your own environment is good for you. Organic, locally grown honey, for example, has properties that are best for the people living in the region it’s made in.

The dietician explained to me that all the major chemo and radiation I went through (different from the maintenance chemo I’m currently on) killed all the cancer cells, and now the idea is to replace those cells with healthy cells. The more healthy cells I have, the better my immune system is and the stronger I can be for future fights against those nasty cancer cells. (That’s life with Stage 4 cancer: always shoring up for the next big battle.)

It was interesting learning about the different foods and what they can do for the body. Carrots, yams, tomatoes, garlic and flax seed oil are highly recommended because each has properties that are particularly helpful to breast cancer patients. Processed foods are highly discouraged. Anything with carotene and other antioxidants are excellent cancer fighters. And don’t forget the fiber … we all know what that’s for. Other fantastic veggie and fruit choices on her list included kale, spinach, broccoli, legumes, tree nuts, strawberries, cantaloupe and blueberries.

I left the dietician’s office determined to do as much of this as possible. (See a few meal ideas below.)

So the question is, how do I find the right balance? I want to enjoy the life I’m living, and eating bark and dirt is not my idea of living. I’ve pretty much cut out all red meat, switched my chicken, fish and turkey to organic, and try to eat fruits, veggies, greek yogurt and nuts. But I still eat some processed foods. And unless you’re a truly dedicated vegan, you’ve got to have your chocolate and treats once in a while.

I’m trying. I really am.

That’s why I was so bummed when I went back for a second visit and discovered I hadn’t lost any weight. I couldn’t believe it. The dietician assured me that, diet-wise, I was doing as much as any of us can do. But here’s the thing I didn’t know:

Almost all cancer patients lose weight (that’s what makes many of them look so ill). Just my luck, though, breast cancer patients usually GAIN weight. HOW CRAZY UNFAIR IS THAT??? I mean, really. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I thought the one good thing about it was that I could count on dropping those extra pounds I’ve always been trying to lose. If I have to be sick, the least I can be is skinny, for crying out loud! I looked at this woman wide-eyed, and she just laughed at me. Afterward, I asked around and it seems she’s right; many breast cancer patients do gain weight. Usually it’s the fault of the medications we take and the changes our reproductive system goes through. So basically, we are all screwed!!!

So she goes on to tell me that, despite all the weighty forces of evil against me, the good news is that I’ve maintained my weight in the 6 months since the initial gain after radiation treatments. She attributes it to the fact that I’m walking most mornings and trying to eat right. I know that’s something to be grateful for — but now and then I do wish for my flat stomach again.

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A few ideas for quick and delicious meals fit for a Stage 4 cancer patient

Breakfast
Greek yogurt with cinnamon or cinnamon in organic oatmeal, or cinnamon on shredded wheat with unsweetened almond milk (the vanilla’s not bad). Top any of these breakfast dishes with flax seed powder for an extra boost of fiber, antioxidants and essential fatty acids.

Lunch
Whole fruit preserves with a not-too-thick layer of organic peanut butter on whole wheat bread. It’s a very satisfying in a stick-to-your-ribs kind of way.

Dinner
Organic chicken tenders sautéed in flax seed oil and fresh garlic — get the garlic in the pan no more than 10 minutes after cutting or it  will lose properties — along with grape tomatoes and spinach (or broccoli or kale). Toss it with some whole wheat pasta and you’ll have a well-balanced, healthy dinner with a wide variety of the specific properties you’re supposed to eat. If it seems a little dry, you can use a little organic non-fat chicken broth, too.

Good Intentions

I finally had a little time away from doctor appointments and went to my favorite store, Target. The greatest store ever!!! Anyway, I was happily shopping when I sort of noticed a woman following me around the store. It took some time, but she finally did approach me. I was wearing my compression sleeve and glove, as I always do, and she pointed it out and asked if I had cancer. I said yes, and she went on to say she’d also had breast cancer, stage one, and she’d had to wear a sleeve as well.

Then she told me she no longer has to wear one and it will get better for me, too. Her intentions were good. She told me her daughter also had cancer and her niece had stage 4 breast cancer. I told her I also had stage 4 breast cancer. She gave me a hug and we spoke for a while, as I said I was in a good mood. Shopping does that for me!!

So I let my guard down and asked “the question”: “How’s your niece doing?” She just gave me this horrified look. She knew what she had done. She’s gone, she said. Tears started rolling down my face. Crying … in Target, my favorite store. Why did I ask that question??? Deep down I knew the answer, but I had to, was compelled to, ask.

Why is it when people find out you have cancer they have to share every cancer story they know with you?!?! My sister had cancer, my brother had cancer, my best friend, my mom, on and on and on. I left Target and went straight home so exhausted from tears that I slept the afternoon away. I’d been having a good day until I met a well-intentioned “cancer sharer,” as I call people like her. And just like that, I was no longer having a good day.

Everyone has a different way of sharing. Some people talk, some people write, some people need time and space. I’m writing now, but it’s taken me two years to get here. I didn’t even tell my family or friends about my blog until a couple of weeks ago. When I’m out and about, I don’t want to hear anybody’s sad stories of dying from cancer!!! However, I may be interested in hearing about SURVIVING. Stories of hope, strength and encouragement should be shared, but, even then, only if the person you are talking with wants to hear them.

I recently heard that a friend of mine is ill. I want to help her. I want to offer her advice, to take some of the burden off of her. But is that in her best interest … or mine? I’m torn because I don’t think we should have to go through this all alone. We’re strong women with children and active lives and we are fighting cancer … and that means something! On the other hand, I sure don’t want to become an unwelcome “sharer.”

So how do we know if they want to be heard? I suppose we need to ask before we speak. We women have got to stick together and encourage positive thoughts instead of focusing on horror stories. Who benefits from depressing discussions of illness?

I will say one good thing did come from this experience: The woman I met in Target did think I was in my early 30s. As a woman in her mid-40s who is being pumped full of cell-killing drugs, I have to say I was very pleased with myself. So that is what I will remember when I go back to Target. Because no one is going to ruin my favorite shopping store with negative vibes.

Cancer’s Made Me Smarter … In a Good Way

I think cancer has made me smarter. If that’s possible? My mom and I were talking today about nothing particularly special and she mentioned that she thinks I’ve changed. Not in the “oh-my, I’ve-found-God” kind of way, but in subtle ways. I think she’s right, and I like it.

It didn’t start right away. It’s been a slow transition for me. I’m just not so uptight about certain things. Examining it now, I think I feel calmer. So strange. A doctor basically tells me I’m gonna die, and somehow I’m calmer.

I also think that many of my family members have changed as well. My mom and I, who have always had a good relationship, now have a better one. I think we trust each other more. She has been by my side every step of the way. Every step. Every doctor appointment. Slept in the hospital with me. Moved halfway across the country with me for treatment for two months. And maybe it’s because we are with each other so much or maybe because we cut to the chase more. I’m not sure when it happened, but we don’t irritate each other anymore (like so many mothers and daughters do). We’ve been totally together in this fight for my life. And we’ve come to realize that no other fights matter. We’ve become so comfortable with each other, and we look at each other with profound deepened respect. She respects me for my determination, and I respect her for her unwavering support. Cancer has changed us both.

My father, brother and sister have all slowly grown different as well. I think what they all have in common is that they are more open with me. Somehow more approachable. At the beginning, we were all so scared but as time goes on we are still scared but we have insight. We have come together, we make more time for each other. It’s so nice. I think maybe cancer has made us nicer. Wow, how weird is that. Just when you think you should be angry, you’re not. Funny how that works.

I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore, and that feels good. Don’t get me wrong, I still worry. But I worry about the right things. Not worrying about the small things is such a relief.

I like me better now.

My Friends, for Life

Next week I’m going to turn another year older. Just a few years ago, this would have given me nightmares. But now I’m jumping up and down because another year has passed and here I am. So today, I don’t want to talk about all the pain I’m in. I want to talk about all the terrific friendships I have. All that I have to be fortunate for, because, crazy as it seems, I have so much.

So let me tell you all about my awesome friend Michelle. You know, the friend that you have known forever. No matter how many people may come in and out of my life, she is my constant, she is “the” friend. Michelle moved in next door when I was 7 and we have been friends ever since. Michelle doesn’t live next door anymore, so there are some long gaps between seeing or talking to each other, but she’s that friend where none of that matters. It’s like no time passes when we get together. I like to think of Michelle as not only my smart friend but the one who knows me the best. We grew up together. She’s my sister and I love her. She’s become such a strong woman, a great mother and my best friend forever. I’d like those who may read this to know that I don’t file a post without running it by Michelle. She is special, she’s talented, she’s kind, caring and my life is better because she’s in it!!!!

My local “posse” is pretty cool, too. My friend Patty I’ve known since we met at a Gymboree class when our first children were 3 months old. I liked her right away. Sometimes you just get that instant feeling. She smiled at me and I knew we would be friends forever … and we have been. We have raised our children together, we lost her mother together and now she supports me through all my struggles. She’s the one who ran my daughter’s birthday party when I was in the hospital, she’s the one who would drop off food when we would come home from a long day of hospital tests, and she’s the one who bought me my favorite sweater when I lost my breasts and was so ashamed. Patty ROCKS!

I can’t talk about my friends without talking about my David. He is my warm-hearted friend. He gets me. He’s so nurturing and so aware of my feelings and thoughts. He knows my needs before I do. I like to think of David as my gentle lion. When I couldn’t talk, when I couldn’t breathe, he held everyone at bay for me. He fights for me and holds my hand at the same time. He is such an extraordinary man, and I am so lucky to have him as my friend. He would do anything for me, and I for him. I’m never letting David go. He put on high heels for me and my heart belonged to him forever.

My friend Robyn lived here for  just a short time but it was enough to make me a Robyn fan for life. Robyn is so kind and insightful. She can say something in four words that others would say in 10. I truly admire Robyn. She also happens to be married to one of my heroes, a doctor who saved me a lifetime of pain and suffering. Robyn has opened her heart to me and has never let go. I adore Robyn! She is beauty within. She shines, and I’m so lucky to be in her light.

Julie, Jill, Rebecca, Elizabeth, Wendy, Amy, Kathy, Tracey and so many more friends to talk about. These girls set up a meal lineup for me that lasted a whole year. They call me, check on me constantly and breathe life into me, which all keeps me smiling and grateful for their friendships. They take my kids to soccer and call them for sleepovers when I need it most. I’m so blessed with so many people that care about me. I’m here today because of all my wonderful friendships.

Someday I’ll have to go into detail about my unbelievable family, but today was about friendships. I have a difficult time believing that there is a luckier person on this earth than I am. I would have had these relationships regardless of cancer, but cancer has opened my eyes to the depths of my relationships and the beauty of my life. I’m another year older and, damn, I get to live it with the the most wonderful support group ever!!