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Balancing Act: Health — and purpose — keep angst in check

By Cindy Krischer Goodman, The Miami Herald –

Just last month, in a cozy restaurant with family around the table, Debbie Zelman blew out the candle on her birthday cake. It was an act that was both defiant and exciting. Zelman had turned 45.

Others might look at a milestone birthday with angst. For Zelman, the occasion marked something entirely different: resilience and determination after turning back from a deadly form of cancer.

In our daily quest for work/life balance, we live in the present, trying to get dinner on the table, the sprinklers fixed or meet a work deadline. But then comes a health crisis and all our mundane “to dos” seem inconsequential. In October, as the country gives our attention to cancer survivors, people like Zelman remind us that balancing personal health with a job that makes a difference for others is the ultimate balancing act.

It was only five years ago that Zelman was zooming between the demands of her own Broward County, Fla., law office and her home life with three young children and husband. And then, her meals just wouldn’t stay down.

Initially, doctors told her she was suffering the effects of stress. Weak and famished, Zelman checked into a hospital. After tests, a hospital doctor delivered a deadly diagnosis: inoperable Stage 4 stomach cancer, rare in young women and carrying a survival rate of less than 5 percent in five years.

It seemed the most shattering news Zelman could possibly receive.

But Zelman, whose youngest was only three, immediately reacted obstinately. “I cannot and will not picture my kids without a mother.” Zelman remembers thinking: “I could either let this disease define who I was or I could fight for my life. Well, I’m a fighter. ”

About a year after her diagnosis, Zelman figured she needed a game plan. She had spent much of that year in bed, doctors’ offices and hospitals. She needed to know that somebody, somewhere, was working to find a cure for stomach cancer.

Initially, Zelman launched Debbie’s Dream Foundation as a way for family and friends to help her fund innovative research and raise awareness of the disease. That foundation, now a national non-profit charity based in Davie and called Can’t Stomach Cancer, has turned into something giant and inspirational.

Zelman has rallied more than 10,000 people across the country to organize and participate in at least 50 events to raise money for stomach cancer research. She has brought together 20 of the country’s top doctors to participate in Can’t Stomach Cancer’s medical advisory board.

She has put together two national educational symposiums for doctors, patients and caregivers to share information. She has built a website, hired staff and founded a program to help cancer patients get information on where to go for treatment and how to connect with survivors.

Thanks to her efforts, Can’t Stomach Cancer now has eight chapters across the country. She now sits on the Esophago-Gastric Task Force of the National Cancer Institute.

Zelman built Can’t Stomach Cancer while receiving chemotherapy every three weeks, going on date nights with her husband, Andrew Guttman, and driving her three children, 14-year-old twins Rachel and Zachary, and 7-year-old Sarah, to school and activities.

“When I’m not being a mom or cancer patient, all my free time is devoted to the foundation,” Zelman says. “Family and friends have told me, ‘have fun, relax’ but it gives me strength to know that I may be part of finding a cure and helping others.”

Worldwide, stomach cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths each year. Annually, about 21,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with stomach cancers and about half die within the first year.

“Those are shattering statistics,” she says. “I’m so proud that we have become a resource for stomach cancer patients around the world, bringing them hope and valuable information.”

Other cancer patients aren’t the only ones to benefit, says life coach Harriet Sharaf. Having a bigger purpose helps balance out health and personal problems and creates a positive attitude that helps the body, too.

“Debbie has so much on her plate with making this foundation work, with a cure being found, she can focus on that rather than another round of chemo.”

“Debbie’s whole purpose and focus changed,” Sharaf points out. “She’s looking at ‘how do I use this’ — not only to save my life, but to make this mean something for others?”

When Zelman was faced with her diagnosis, she was a young successful career-oriented mother, wife and sister, notes Susie Bond, a board member of Can’t Stomach Cancer. “She could have been any one of us.” How she has handled the diagnosis sets her apart, Bond says: “Debbie is so determined to live and enjoy each day and to make things better for others. That enthusiasm is what keeps me involved.”

From the beginning, Zelman focused on a good outcome. She did what she now helps patients to do: connect with stomach cancer survivors. It was a South Florida stomach cancer survivor who encouraged her to travel to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to see the doctor she eventually used for a regimen of targeted chemotherapy, experimental medicine and evolving therapies. She also combines acupuncture, yoga, exercise, positive imagery, good nutrition, vitamin supplements — all under the watch of an integrative medical professional.

Today, Zelman has a shiny, gorgeous head of hair and permanent smile. She has undergone 78 rounds of chemotherapy and settled into a new way of living. When she isn’t caring for her children or managing her health, Debbie fights for other stomach cancer patients. It has been a battle with large and small victories and one she must carefully balance with her personal fight to live.

Zelman said a recent PET scan showed no active cancer. Now, her routine is more about maintenance, attitude and relishing the love and support of friends and family. Only a handful of others suffering from her form of the disease have survived so long, so well.

“When I was diagnosed at 40, turning 45 seemed a long way off. When I think of shooting for the moon, my birthday was the moon for me. I just enjoy each day.”

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