Balancing Act: Health, purpose keep woman's angst in check

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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. She had turned 45.

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

It was only five years ago that she 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, Ms. 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.

Ms. Zelman, whose youngest was only 3, immediately reacted obstinately. "I cannot and will not picture my kids without a mother." She 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, she 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, Ms. 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 is now a national nonprofit charity called Can't Stomach Cancer.

Ms. 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.

Ms. 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," she 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."

Ms. 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.

"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."


Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at


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