stage 4

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.

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.

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.

* * *

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.

Hospital Fallout

Hospitals. What can I say about hospitals? I’m glad they are there, they help millions of people — including myself — but it sure can be difficult to stay in them over and over again for any extended period of time. Since November, I’ve been in the hospital four times. This most recent hospital stay, the result of a rampant infection, completely wore me out.

And the fallout continues …

More than a month later, my arm is still healing. You see, I can only use one arm for IVs and blood work. But the hideously strong medications blew out a vein once a day until we needed to resort to using my foot.

My lymphedema has gotten worse. Before, it was just my upper arm. But this latest infection — which led to my latest surgery — caused it to expand to my lower arm and my back. Now, I have to put a soft cast on my arm, then compression garments, then gloves … and don’t even get me started on what they are doing to compress my back and chest. I can’t wear any of my favorite clothes. Now they want to include me in a trial by wearing some sort of vest with arm that I need to plug into every day. Wow, I’m exhausted just writing it down … and that was all just this week. Can’t wait to see what’s in store for me next week!!!

And have I mentioned the nausea? I think I’ve been nauseous since the day I got my diagnosis. But a whole new level of nausea overcame me with this last infection. First, it was from those evil antibiotics. Then, post-surgery, it was the painkillers. They’d hit a nerve when they put the drain in, and my pain was off the charts. The powerful painkillers they gave me made me so sick I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow. I had to lie really, really still … even moving my eyeballs made the room spin. I had to concentrate on the TV to keep my eyes focused on one spot. When I couldn’t stand it anymore, I refused all painkillers. I know it sounds crazy, but I can handle terrible pain easier than I can tolerate the nausea. That kind of nausea just overwhelms and debilitates me.

A month later, the nausea hasn’t gone away. But it’s nothing like it was on the painkillers — except on the two or three days a week that I have physical therapy to try to reverse some of that new lymphedema. Apparently, having a PT mess around with your lymph nodes really messes with your whole system.

No matter what I do, I just can’t get rid of the nausea! It follows me wherever I go. I can’t drive home from my frequent trips to Johns Hopkins without taking every anti-nausea drug in my arsenal. Today, someone told me told popcorn cures nausea. How crazy is that?! I know people mean well when they offer advice like this, but I have serious doubts about most of it. Take ginger, for example. The cancer cookbooks swear by it, and my friends spent months cooking with it. I refuse to eat anything ginger again!!! It doesn’t work for me!! Yuck!!

The worst fallout of this most recent stay was how hard it was on my children. Especially my daughter. When I’m in the hospital, I can’t take her to the bus stop in the morning. I can’t come to school for lunch. I can’t take her to her activities in the afternoon. I can’t be there for her at all.

When I came home from the hospital last month, I noticed she was limping. My 9-year-old soccer star said her ankle hurt whenever she put pressure on it. I didn’t want to let any grass grow under this problem, so, despite my incredible pain and the drainage tubes hanging from my body, I drove her from appointment to appointment to get some answers. I didn’t expect the answer to be related to me.

I know it is so difficult for my kids to have a sick mom all the time. When I came home from the hospital, Bella seemed so lost, so longing to spend time with me, but I could barely get up the stairs to put her to bed. I’m always feeling like I have to make up for time lost or for not being like some of the other moms. No matter how hard I may try, I can’t seem to catch up.

So now, the doctors believe she is expressing her emotional pain in a physical way. When I asked the doctor if it had anything to do with me — with my cancer — he said that it was “very possibly so.” Apparently, this is somewhat common among children, especially girls. The physical pain she feels is very real, and the doctors even prescribed her physical therapy. I prescribed her lots of time with me. I’m happy to say both treatments are producing positive results.

But that feeling of always being behind, of being less …, well, I wonder how my children will look upon their childhood as they grow into adults. I wonder what memories will be stronger: my illness and all I couldn’t do, or my strength and all that I tried to “get in” or accomplish for them. It’s all for them. I hope they know they are the strength that pushes me within and the light that guides me forward . I hope they remember I always wanted them to be worry-free and happy. To not suffer the fallout.

Loss of Hair, Loss of Self

I look in the mirror and I don’t see myself.

It’s not like it’s bad, but I don’t really look like me. Even though its been a year, I still don’t feel like myself.

Losing my hair was a huge deal. I’d never realized how much I identified with my hair. So much so that when I lost it, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I was ashamed. I didn’t want to face my friends and family.

You can never really prepare for what chemo will do to you. It made me feel so sick. And my shoulder-length, straight, thick hair kept falling out and out and out. I needed to get a broom to sweep up the bathroom every morning.

The constant shedding got to be too difficult, so I went to my trusted, longtime hair stylist on a Sunday when the shop was closed to shave off the remaining strands of my hair. I had no idea just how emotional it would be for me, so, when she asked, I allowed my sweet daughter to join me. Big mistake.

When my hair was shaved, tears just rolled down my face. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t keep them from falling. My daughter was rubbing my leg and telling me how beautiful I looked. My 8-year-old daughter. It is a memory I don’t enjoy bringing to mind. Yes, I had a beautiful wig to wear (which is a long story in itself), and felt OK with it on. But from that day on … even still today … I don’t see the same woman in the mirror. I remember my husband’s face when he saw me when I returned home. It was that swift look of horror before he could put his game face on. My son gave me that same look.

From that day, my son and daughter never wanted me to leave the house without my wig on. As time passed, I didn’t care so much anymore and the wig was itchy, but my children felt better when I wore the wig. My Bella would say, “Mommy, are you going to wear your wig when you come to my school?” “Mommy, if my friend so and so comes over, will you wear your wig?”

So today, even though my hair is growing back — curly! — I still don’t see Viki in the mirror staring back. It’s not like I hate the person I see. It’s more like I’m resigned to the person I see. My mom asks me why don’t I cut my hair short and spiky like when it was first growing in? It looked so cute and contemporary then, and I know it looks more like a mullet now or something out of Vegas in the Elvis days, but I need to get it back to that shoulder length. Somehow, I’ll get control back then. If I want to cut it off at that point, at least it’ll be on my own terms. I’m in control, not cancer. But I wonder, when it’s shoulder-length again, will I look like me again? I fear not.  Certainly, there is the possibility that it will never get that long hair again because my disease will return and I’ll lose all my hair again … but mostly I fear that that person I’m looking for in the mirror is gone.

I realize it doesn’t have to be bad to be different, but when you are used to something for 40+ years, it takes more than a year to grow accustomed to someone else when you look in the mirror.