Handling It All

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/

A Midnight Call for Strength

Let me start today with an apology for not returning to my blog for the last six months. It wasn’t my intention to stop writing. It just happened. All of the sudden, it wasn’t helping me anymore. When I last wrote, I had received a bad PET scan and since then I’ve been struggling with heart and lung problems while continuing my constant monthly chemo. And here’s a shocker … sometimes all the doctors can be so overwhelming!! I’m writing today still without resolving many of those new problems, but I suppose I am moving forward in spite of the unknown.

January, I’ll be sick 3 years. The doctors didn’t believe I would still be here, but I knew I would. And, now, I’m feeling restless. Restless, because I’m just getting sick and tired of the many doctors, all the surgeries and all the pain that is constant in my body. Let me be clear,  I will never give up on me, I will never feel sorry for me, but I will allow me some time to acknowledge the fact that I really hate all this crap. All the doctor appointments and all the time it takes to poke and prod through a diagnosis.

So please allow me to call on all the sick women out there. A new year is around the corner and we need to come together in spirit when the clock strikes midnight. Close our eyes and call to each other for the strength and support women are so good at giving and sharing. We are women on a mission — mothers, sisters, daughter, wives — and we need to push each other through our difficult times. It can be so lonely shouldering this burden alone, trying to be strong for our spouses, our children, our families and friends. But if with stick together, we just might have a chance. The bottom line is that no doctor or other professional has to create our fate or our days spent. We can do that.

So on December 31st at midnight, I’m not gonna waste my time on silly resolutions. I’m gonna use my power to join all the women all over the world to help each other fight this godawful disease. I hope to find some peace in that quite moment. And I hope to share with all of you.

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.

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.

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.

One Year at a Time

Wahoo! It’s 2012 and I made it through the year!!! One year down and, hopefully, many more to come, but I’ll take a year at a time.

Boy, what a relief to see 2011 come to an end. I sure do hope this new year is less stressful. I realize I will be on chemo and cancer drugs for the rest of my life, but the current drugs I’m on are not as debilitating as the treatments I’ve endured this past year. The bottom line here is (just like the song by the Dixie Chicks) I have a Long Way Around, but, dammit, I’m gonna look forward to a new year.

As a mother, I strongly believe I owe my children hope and a positive attitude, no matter how long I may have on this earth. Children are vulnerable and need love and continuity, no matter how long we are given to provide it. I’m getting stronger, and I’m going to start walking outside no matter how far I can walk. Going outside in nature is important. I want to breathe the air and know I’m alive. Forget that treadmill.  I need to get outside, listening to my favorite tunes. Or just listening to my thoughts.

One step at a time.

Just like with this disease … one treatment at a time, one positive thought at a time, one favorite moment with your family at a time. If I can say this with my stage 4 diagnosis, anyone can believe it.

It helps that I’m feeling better now than I did through most of the holiday season. In November, I ended up back in the hospital with another infection. Yuck. So many powerful antibiotics! They sure can do a number on you. They made my November and much of my December miserable.

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Throughout the ordeal, my Jere was so sweet. Back in November, he’d driven me the hour-and-a-half to my doctor to check out the redness spreading across the left side of my chest, but we weren’t so prepared for the doctor to say I needed to go check into the hospital for surgery the next day. I was so upset to be there and missing my daughter’s 9th birthday party, but Jere made it OK.

And after surgery, the nurses on the floor were so kind to us, so unlike my previous hospital experiences. (Jere and I think it’s because we were on the trauma floor, where many of their patients couldn’t even speak!) One nurse was so sweet … he found a chair that pulled out to a bed, staked a claim on it, and pushed it into a room for Jere before anyone else could take it. It was like we had a six-day vacation. Jere moved in, they gave him a hospital gown to wear (since he hadn’t brought extra clothes with him) and waited on him with drinks and snacks. What a character my husband is! I know we were there for scary reasons and there was pain, but it was surprisingly fun. Jere held my hand at night and ate all my hospital food. I will always remember that hospital stay with a smile … all because of my Jere!

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I know things don’t always go my way, but I’m so lucky. I have a great family and unbelievable friends. (Remember, my friends fed my family for a full year!!! 365 days. That’s a lot of love!) And now I’ve got a new year to look forward to. Wow, that’s so corny but somehow OK.