Hopefulness

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.

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.

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!!

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.

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.

Boobs

When I first got my prothesis during the holiday season, I came home and showed off my new silhouette to my family. I was so proud to have a figure again. What I didn’t realize was how pleased my children were for me. Just as my extended family all started piling into my house to share the holiday meal, my 12-year-old son points to my chest with a huge proud smile on his face and says, “Hey, look what Mom got!!”

For a moment, with my family members still bundled in their coats and perched on threshold of my home, there was nothing but silence. Then they all looked at me, and we all started cracking up.

At first my son was a bit worried he’d done something wrong. He sheepishly said he thought it was OK to tell family, and I assured him that it was fine but hoped he would refrain from telling the mailman and bus driver … what a sweet boy I have!!  I’m so lucky to have such a nice family. So caring. So supportive.

As I learn more about breast cancer, I realize how many differences there can be from person to person, from case to case. In my case, everything is so difficult. Being Stage 4 is not very convenient.

I speak with other women who have had or are living with breast cancer, and everyone’s story is different. For me, I had a double mastectomy about a year ago, and I’m still so far from getting reconstruction. And when I do begin reconstruction, I’m told it will take three or four surgeries. It seems to me everyone I speak to has been either able to have reconstruction at the same time as the mastectomy or within 3 months’ time. I’m a year and counting.

Something is always going wrong. Now granted, I do have Stage 4, so things are a bit trickier. But I didn’t really understand, I guess. Most people I know think it’s crazy that I want to get reconstruction given all I’ve been through and maybe what’s ahead of me, but, right now, I’m determined. Not necessarily for vanity, but for various reasons.

One, I am determined to survive this disease even given my odds. Why should I assume otherwise?

Two, wearing a prosthesis has a major downside. It may look nice under my sweater, but my chest gets all bruised and irritated. When I move one way, it moves another. (I have an expander on my right side, so I wear a prosthesis only on my left.) I want to be able to feel like my breasts are connected  to my body … a part of me. Even though I know they won’t be the same in any way they once were.

And three, my family will be happy if I do this. Let me be clear: I have a great husband and two wonderful kids who love me no matter what and put no pressure on me to get breasts. But I think that, collectively, we will all feel better if I do. I’m not sure if it’s a little bit of, well, … trying to forget I’m sick.  My current deformed body is a constant reminder of my illness. It would be nice to look prettier and maybe be able to forget once in awhile. Is that so bad?? Is it so bad that my family wants that too??

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.

***

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!

***

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.