Transcript EP 305 – Women’s Empowerment & Cancer with Viki Zarkin
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Dr. Taz: Welcome back everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Superwoman Wellness, where you know we are determined to bring you back to your superpower self. Joining me today is a woman who’s been on quite the journey. Some of you may be able to empathize, maybe even have been on a similar journey of your own. I have Viki Zarkin. She is one of the only people alive with an aggressive form of stage four metastatic cancer for over 11 years. She was diagnosed in her forties when her doctor first told her to go home and get her affairs in order. Ouch.
At the time, she had two small children at home and was running her husband’s dental practice. She spent the next several years fighting for her life, advocating for herself in navigating our healthcare world and following her gut. Now today, she’s a beacon of hope as a national motivational speaker, coach, and author of I Am The One. She inspires women to change the way we’ve been programmed to think and emphasizes the importance of starting with young women on how to believe in themselves, challenge the status quo, find their voices, and listen to their hearts. Viki’s can-do attitude inspires people to think differently in their everyday lives by applying a unique thought process. Deals can be made in the boardroom just as easily as they can help people in their cancer battle. Welcome to the show.
Viki Zarkin: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Dr. Taz: Oh, we are thrilled to have you here. What happened? Tell us a little bit about it. You got a diagnosis, you’re better, thank God, but what’s the in between space on this?
Viki Zarkin: Well, the background is that I had been getting regular mammograms since I had been into my twenties because of another issue, so I was pretty up on my mammograms. I had had another health scare, so I was maybe about six months out. I was only about a year and a half out from my previous mammogram. I went and got my mammogram. Of course, they found issues with it and so forth. I got the call back and after all the tests of back and forth at Johns Hopkins and so forth, they found me right away at stage four metastatic cancer. What I find that is, to give you an idea of how aggressive my form of cancer is, is why I gave you that background because a year and a half prior to me taking that mammogram, I was clean, 100% clean.
Dr. Taz: Wow.
Viki Zarkin: I mentioned this at the beginning, so it gives you an idea of how highly aggressive this form of cancer that I have and I’m living with, still.
Dr. Taz: Yeah.
Viki Zarkin: I had been through all these tests and I finally got to the point where they say, “Okay, we’re giving you the best oncologist at Johns Hopkins and he’s ready to meet you”. I haven’t met him yet after all these months of testing. We go in, my mom and my husband are sitting to my left and the doctor is going on and on and on and talking in a very monotone voice. What I liken it to in my book is I compare him to the Peanuts character teacher that Wawawa, and that’s all I heard until I heard, “I’m very sorry to tell you, I’ve been in touch with all of our colleagues here at Johns Hopkins. We are all of the same opinion. There’s nothing we can do for you. You need to go home and get your affairs in order.”
Dr. Taz: Oh my goodness. Yeah.
Viki Zarkin: I mean, I was gobsmacked, literally gobsmacked.
Dr. Taz: Yeah, right. How old were your children at the time?
Viki Zarkin: My children were eight and 11, babies.
Dr. Taz: Babies, yeah.
Viki Zarkin: I mean, just babies. It was the first thing that hit me, so what I did, of course, was a little crazy at the time, when I got the news, the Viki that walked in the room that day immediately left and the Viki that you’re speaking to today is who came out. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s the way it worked. That Viki, who’s with you today, flew across that room and grabbed the doctor by the neck.
Dr. Taz: Are you serious?
Viki Zarkin: I am so telling the truth. It is too crazy not to be the truth. Never have I grabbed anybody again since in my life, I’m just letting everybody know. I grabbed him and I just said, “You talk about all these colleagues that you got and shared information with, but what about me? What about what I want? What about what I think? I’m a mom, I have to make it. I’m going to be the one. I don’t care what you put in me. I don’t care what you stick in me. I don’t care what you cut off. I am going to live. I’m going to be the one”. Then I’m angry, of course. My hands are around his neck and I’m like, “Oh crap”. I realize that they’re there. I fly back and the room is really, really quiet. I’m like, “Oh my God, here comes security. I’m going to be carted off”.
Dr. Taz: Right, right.
Viki Zarkin: Finally, the doctor looks up and he says to me, “Okay, we’ll try chemo and we’ll see how that goes first. Is that okay with you?” Of course, I knew right then and there to say, “Yes, it’s okay with me” because I figured something out pretty quick and that was, I was in a real pickle. I didn’t know a lot about cancer at that time. I knew, based on what he’s saying to me, he doesn’t think I’m going to make it, so he doesn’t believe in me. I had to believe in myself really quick, so the game was on. I mean, I just knew that nobody was going to raise my children but me. That was it. It was a lot of research, a lot of work and still today, I’m on maintenance chemotherapy treatments.
Dr. Taz: Wow, okay. What is your maintenance plan? Do you have to go in and get scanned?
Viki Zarkin: I go every 28 days for chemo. I have my port here and I go in for my IV treatments, and they’re very hard on my system. Because of that, I have rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, and sarcoidosis of the lung. I can go on a few more ailments. The thing is, everything hurts. I’m in pain every day and it gets worse as I remain alive, but I’m so grateful to be here and I have absolutely nothing to complain about. My motto is, “I’m the luckiest girl around. I just happen to have cancer”. It’s as simple as that. I mean, God graced me and I was able to raise my children, the greatest gift of my life, best.
Dr. Taz: How old are they now?
Viki Zarkin: My son is now 23 and my daughter will be 20 in a couple weeks.
Dr. Taz: That’s amazing. I see a lot of patients every day, so what got you through stage four metastatic cancer that didn’t really happen for so many others that I have known close to me and then even professionally? What do you think happened to you? I know there’s no formula.
Viki Zarkin: No, there is no formula. I say that up front, but a couple things actually stand out. Now, not that I’m saying that this is not warranted and everybody has the right to do it, it was just how I handled it. I immediately went into fight mode. There was no time to complain, worry, fret cry. I had a life to save and I was planning on raising those kids. I had to be my own advocate, my best advocate for myself. I just hit the ground researching and I knew one thing right then and there, based on my research was that if I’m successful with chemo, if I’m successful with my double radical mastectomy, which is what they would do if I were, and so on and so forth, those things weren’t going to happen because I would maybe die of cancer. I would have congestive heart failure because the cancer was in the left ventricle of my heart, my left lung, my neck, my esophagus, my whole chest cavity, my whole breast, 30 or more lymph nodes.
I was riddled with cancer. The doctor had reason to say what he said, and they’re in very difficult positions. I just think that it’s a difficult thing to have to tell somebody. I just knew that given all that bureaucracy and all of that, no, that the only way I was going to do it was my own way. This is making the story quick. It took a while, but I did find a doctor to do a different type of radiation treatment on me that still, today, hasn’t been done similarly. What I did was proton radiation instead of photon, which saved my heart and lungs. I only had about 5-10% damage, only some damage to my esophagus. Ultimately in the end, it was my will to fight because I wouldn’t have made it through the chemo or the mastectomy if it wasn’t for that.
Then I had these great doctors, I mean that doctor was a pediatric oncologist, intravenous radiologist and oncologist. I was in the waiting room with all the kids. He decided that he was going to help me and I’m grateful. I’m grateful. It was a university hospital versus a regular hospital, which doesn’t fall because some paperwork can get left under the cracks a little easier than a regular institution, I think. Again, this was 12 years ago.
Dr. Taz: That’s gracious.
Viki Zarkin: I was very, very fortunate, but I still suffer from a lot of issues. I just get my PET scans every six months, like clockwork. I just keep up a good attitude and I’m just so glad to be here.
Dr. Taz: That’s amazing.
Viki Zarkin: I want to make a difference.
Dr. Taz: That’s amazing. I think just that resilience of your spirit and your will sometimes drives the journey more than anything else. There are a lot of things I’m hearing in your story: you have that fire, whatever we want to call it, of “I’m going to conquer this”, right? For someone who is maybe walking into this journey as a first step or newly getting some news or dealing with a loved one even, what’s your advice to them? Where do they begin as they start to process? I was on the phone just yesterday with a dear patient whose cancer has returned and it’s stage four and metastatic. I think I just put the phone down and it took me a second.
Viki Zarkin: A lot for you, yeah.
Dr. Taz: Young woman, family, all this other stuff. For me, the doctor, it is a lot about listening to the patient and then being a little stubborn and being like, “I’m going to find any answer that I can find”. I’m not an oncologist and I’m going to try to figure out where to lead this person too, right?
Viki Zarkin: Right.
Dr. Taz: That’s my response, but what do you say to the patient or someone like yourself, who’s newly stepping into this journey? The odds are not great, the research is not great, the treatments are not great. What do you say to them?
Viki Zarkin: Well, everyone’s different. I teach a course called There’s More to Cancer than Just the Diagnosis. The reason I call it that is because I thought that cancer was going to be my worst news, but it was dealing with the insurance companies. It was dealing with the doctors. It was fighting for my life. It was being an advocate that really created more stressful issues for me than the cancer itself. What I say to people and what I provide in my course is unique because there’s not a lot around there. It’s to give you good information to take and have a starting place because everybody needs a starting place. They need to be grounded. First thing they need to do is get their person, one or two people. The problem is we get a lot of people that care about us and you get all this white noise that comes in from the left. I have a friend, you should do this.
I went through this, this worked for me, my aunt, so on and so on and so forth. I’m not saying that that information isn’t all good, but it’s very difficult to sift through it all and be the doctor, like you said. What you want to do is get your mom, your husband, your best friend, that person to sift through that white noise and be that person to support you that whole way, so that when you don’t want to talk to people or whatever, or if it gets too much, you have that person to run interference for. I think that’s really important.
Dr. Taz: I think that’s great. Who is that person for you, out of curiosity?
Viki Zarkin: My mom.
Dr. Taz: Your mom.
Viki Zarkin: Ultimately, my mom. My husband and my mom were amazing partners. I called us the Three Musketeers, whenever we would go for chemo and treatments. You have to understand, my mother’s in her 80s and still driving me to chemo, which is two hours.
Dr. Taz: Oh, wow.
Viki Zarkin: Wow. Coming back today.
Dr. Taz: Oh my goodness.
Viki Zarkin: Yeah, she’s an amazing woman and a great inspiration. She wasn’t going to let me down and I wasn’t going to let her down. I wasn’t going to let my children down. A lot of times, that’s all you need. Sometimes you’re afraid, so it’s scary to do it for yourself, but you’re braver when you’re doing it for a loved one, a child or a minor child. These are things that worked for me, but everybody’s different. I think just finding your people and doing your research, getting the right doctor. I have an organization that I provide. Love this name, Lunch for Healthcare. Isn’t that great?
Dr. Taz: Um-hum.
Viki Zarkin: The premise of Lunch for Healthcare is two things, teaching and encouraging women to follow their instincts when it comes to their own healthcare, tapping into that understanding, your own body is so important today. Then asking doctors to listen first, diagnose second. It’s my belief that with those two things, those two changes are getting better. Still, there’s a lot of women that can tap into all their healthcare and there’s a lot of really wonderful oncologists out there, but the other 50%, if we can encourage them to do better, we can create so much more preventative medicine and save money with insurance companies.
I’m thinking we can go to Congress and the insurance companies and fight and say, “Hey, look, we did this for you with these two things. We saved you millions of dollars. I’m not asking for more, I’m just asking to give me back what I had”.
Dr. Taz: Yeah.
Viki Zarkin: Give us back our mammograms at 35.
Dr. Taz: Yeah, yeah.
Viki Zarkin: Let’s do our pap smears every year again. This is preventative medicine. This is going to save you millions of dollars in cutting and pill popping and so on and so forth. I mean, these are things that are so important. Women are second-class citizens in the medical field, and we just have to change that. One voice, one person, like you, yourself, I mean, you’re amazing.
Dr. Taz: I’m trying really hard, but definitely women like you inspire me, for sure because we realize some of the gaps in the flaws in how we treat women, what we’re even looking for from a prevention standpoint, what those warning signs are, so that women can really start to advocate for themselves. I think that so much of this is about building a team. I love that because it is overwhelming and that is exactly what I hear. My mom said this, this person said that, my neighbor went to this.
There’s a lot of name-dropping, well I went to trouble board certified, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. At the end of the day, it’s very much about marrying knowledge with you, the person and how your body is going to respond to that. Dealing in the physical plane is incredibly important, that’s where all the treatments are, but dealing with it in the emotional and the energetic and the mental planes are equally important. I think that’s why some people sail through because they master that stuff. Whereas other people, that part of their healing and their recovery is very often ignored. I love that you’re stressing this and spreading a message of hope for many people, something which can be incredibly scary and frightful. With your platform now, we know your story and what you’ve been through. What are you hoping to accomplish with your platform?
Viki Zarkin: Well, the one of course, ultimately to change the insurance for women in healthcare, get us better coverage, better opportunities. Why am I the only one that did proton therapy? I mean, granted, proton therapy is a pinpoint type of radiation, usually done for brain cancer or prostate cancer, small areas. I had a very large area, I want to be clear about that. That made proton radiation very difficult and expensive for me, but I’m here today to say that it worked.
Dr. Taz: Why did you choose that over the traditional chemotherapy and some of the other options that are out there?
Viki Zarkin: Well, I did the traditional chemotherapy, but if I had done the photon radiation, which is the traditional radiation, it’s a huge scatter radiation. It’s a big blast, so it comes in the front and goes out through the back. What would’ve happened is, my heart, lungs and so forth that were filled with cancer that they had to radiate, would’ve curbed my life quite a bit. I would’ve died of congestive heart failure in that particular scenario. Even if the cancer didn’t kill me quite as quickly, that would have.
Dr. Taz: Right.
Viki Zarkin: I was in a real pickle, you see. I had nowhere to turn. I was boxed in. I needed to find a hole out of that box, a door, some kind window, some kind of opening. I would’ve gone to the end of the earth to find that.
Dr. Taz: A lot of this you did on your own, digging?
Viki Zarkin: Yes.
Dr. Taz: Wow. Wow. With your platform, do you help folks navigate this journey a little bit? Where to go, what to do, who to follow?
Viki Zarkin: Yeah, I mean, like I said, everybody’s different. I am a coach. I listen to people and then I can offer them advice. You have to understand, somebody like me, I’ve had it up to date, 23 surgeries. I have another one scheduled in a couple months, that’ll be my 24th. I am somebody that has been through practically everything. I can say, “Oh, this happened to me” because I’ve been in it 12 years and I’m metastatic, so I’ve hit rock bottom so many different times on so many levels that I have a lot of knowledge and a lot of experience that I can share with people.
Even something as simple as one of the things that I help people with is how do you tell your small children that their mom is sick? They’re going to lose all their hair. They don’t understand that. I talk about that in my course, and I talk about that in coaching and things like that, things that are simple that you wouldn’t think of. How do you find the right doctor for you? How do you say no to that God-like complex? That person that you’ve all met on occasion that says, “It’s my way or the highway”. When you’re so fearful of dying, how do you withstand that kind of stress and pressure? That’s why I say there’s more to cancer than just the diagnosis. I mean, there’s just so many things that can kill you.
Dr. Taz: Yeah.
Viki Zarkin: Stress is the number one, because without a healthy body, you can’t fight off the cancer, so the stress brings down your immune system and it creates real problems for you. If you’re not fighting with all you’ve got, it’s a real difficult situation, and when you’re a mom, you’ve got kids. I mean, God bless us all. We’re all mom warriors. We would do anything for our children.
Dr. Taz: You’re obviously a go-getter. How did you keep the mental and the emotional component together? I can hear the do-do and the go-go in you, but not everybody’s wired that way.
Viki Zarkin: No, and I’m really not wired that way. I did it.
Dr. Taz: Yeah.
Viki Zarkin: Because I had to, and I compartmentalized everything. How I talk about it is I say it was like a tunnel vision for me. I didn’t see right. I didn’t see left. I mean, for two years, I was a different person than my friends knew me to be because I was very robotic. I was here. I said “Yes”, I said, “No”. I was listening, but I really saved the good energy that I might have to be with my children for a couple hours, give them their bath time, their story time, those hugs, those kisses, those real connections that children need. Then I saved everything else for just me. I went away. I mean, I know it sounds crazy, but I went away and I fought like Sumo wrestlers. That’s how I picture it, some kind of Japanese warrior in my head, just to fight the battle of all battles.
Dr. Taz: Well, super proud of you.
Viki Zarkin: Thank you.
Dr. Taz: You have more strength than so many of us, so you should be proud of that. I hope your story is inspirational to somebody listening out there or even watching today and we can spread it to folks who might be feeling a little bit hopeless or having a sense of despair, as they maybe navigate this journey or know somebody who has. This is becoming, unfortunately, a more common story. That’s why I’m so passionate about prevention and what that really needs to look like and questions we really need to be asking. I do think there needs to be a change when it comes to women’s health and how women take care of their bodies. I think we all have to be a part of that conversation, for sure.
Women shouldn’t be second-class citizens in this country when it comes to medicine. Our ancestors have jumped a lot of hurdles, but there’s still somewhere to go. You’re a testament to, really, what the power of your will can do when you’re navigating a journey like this. Thank you for sharing your story.
Viki Zarkin: Thank you.
Dr. Taz: If someone out there is listening, watching, and they’re like, “I need to connect with her. I’m in a moment right now”, what’s the best way for them to find you?
Viki Zarkin: Well, my website is just, Iamtheone.com. I have a book out called, I Am The One, and you can purchase that on my website or you can just get it right off Amazon. I think it’s actually on sale right now. My email is, Iamtheone.firstname.lastname@example.org, so you certainly can email me a personal note. I’m more than happy to talk to everybody. Of course, you know I do, coach and I speak. I’m going to be speaking on November 1st in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. If you’d like to come out to the Beth Israel synagogue in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, I’ll be there to speak and would love to be hired by anybody else that needs a motivational speaker because I just want to help.
Dr. Taz: Oh, I love it. Well, thank you so much for taking time out today to join us and to listen and really share your story of your learnings through this journey and for everybody else watching and listening to this episode of Superwoman Wellness. Remember, if you know someone who might be on this path, this would be an incredible resource for them as they really navigate the uncertainty of the decision making, the shame, the guilt, all the stuff that comes with this type of diagnosis and this type of journey. Yes, we are going to change medicine and we need all of you on that boat to do so. All right, remember, you can rate and review and share this with your friends. We’re on Apple, iTunes and Spotify, as well. If you do send me a review to email@example.com, I’ll send you a bottle of Boost. You can check it out. I’ll see you guys next time.