April 15, 2008 is a date that I’ll never forget. I had been experiencing fatigue and nausea for a few months, so I scheduled to have some blood work done and then a scan. My fatigue had become so bad that I was resting in a wheelchair in my physician husband’s office at the hospital where the tests were being done. While I was waiting for the scan results, my parents walked into my husband’s office — so I knew that the news couldn’t be good.
In a split second, my life changed dramatically when I was diagnosed with stage IV stomach cancer. I was told that my cancer was inoperable and incurable and that I would need chemotherapy for the rest of my life.
At the time of my diagnosis, there were very few treatment options available because it isn’t a common cancer in the United States. Therefore, my chance of being alive in five years was only 4 percent. I was 40 years old, an attorney with my own firm and the mother of three young children. This was something I didn’t have time for; this was definitely NOT in my life plan.
When I was told I only had a few weeks to live, my first thoughts were that my 3-year-old daughter wouldn’t remember me and that my 10-year-old twins would go through their teenage years without a mother. I couldn’t imagine missing out on my children’s lives. I was determined to live so I could celebrate milestones that every mom waits for like teaching them how to drive, celebrating college acceptances, taking prom pictures and especially watching with pride as they walked across the stage to receive their high-school diplomas. The possibility of not seeing them grow up wasn’t an option for me; I knew I had to take matters into my own hands.
Although I didn’t plan for this, I knew I couldn’t let stomach cancer win. Within a few minutes of my diagnosis, I journeyed quickly through the five stages of grief so I could take on the fight. I was determined to beat this disease and to not become another statistic. My husband, children, and family were with me every step of the way, and I felt that together we could fight this. I could look stomach cancer in the eye and quote Dylan Thomas: “I will not go gently into that good night.”
Fortunately, I’ve received the best care as overseen by my medical team, my husband and father who are both physicians, and my very devoted mother. I’m also one of the lucky few who have responded to the many different regimens that I’ve received since my diagnosis, including HER2+ targeted treatments. These new treatments, along with the support of my family, have helped me to survive. I am considered to be a “Super Survivor,” which I’m extremely happy about!
In April 2016, I reached my eighth cancerversary and one month later I watched my 18-year-old twins walk across the stage to receive their high-school diplomas. As I hugged them after the ceremony, I was struck by the power and meaning behind being able to be present for this milestone in their lives. Then in June, I saw my 11-year-old daughter graduate from elementary school. Eight years ago, I was terrified to imagine not being here. After a cancer diagnosis, you live day to day, week to week, and scan to scan not knowing what the future may bring, but I make it my mission to live each day to the fullest and to fight for a tomorrow.
My children and my husband are my main priority, and every birthday, talent show, soccer game, karate tournament and recital I can attend is a blessing. Every day that I defy the odds means that I get to celebrate another milestone with my family. While people may look at me and see a Super Survivor, they don’t know the struggles my family and I go through every day. My determination to fight has been driven by my children who have always been, and continue to be, my inspiration and my proudest accomplishments.
We’ve partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, on this patient-focused series. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases share their unique stories.
Debbie Zelman is founder and president of Debbie’s Dream Foundation: Curing Stomach Cancer, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about stomach cancer, advancing funding for research, and providing education and support internationally to patients, families, and caregivers.
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