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Jennifer Zarou: Adjusting Your Sails After a CLL Diagnosis

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Published on June 17, 2016

Patient Power founder and host, Andrew Schorr, interviews three-time cancer survivor, Jennifer Abraham.  As a mother of two, Jennifer decided to view her life with cancer as a blessing.  After about of month of sheer panic, she chose to push herself to make as many memories as possible with her daughters, and Jennifer feels cancer has brought a new level of awareness to her daily potential.  Read more of Jennifer’s story here

Provided by CLL Global Research Foundation, which received support from Acerta Pharma, Gilead Sciences, Inc., Pharmacyclics, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd and TG Therapeutics, Inc. and the Patient Empowerment Network, which received support from AbbVie Inc. and Genentech Inc. It was produced by Patient Power in partnership with The Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center at Columbia University Medical Center.

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Transcript | Jennifer Zarou: Adjusting Your Sails After a CLL Diagnosis

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That's how you’ll get care that's most appropriate for you.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you. 

Andrew Schorr:

Hello and welcome to Patient Power. I'm Andrew Schorr. I'm sitting with someone where you may have read her blog on the patientpower.info website, Jennifer Zarou (née Abraham) from Massachusetts. 

Jennifer Zarou:

Hi. 

Andrew Schorr:

Diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia at age 48, right? 

Jennifer Zarou:

Yep.

Andrew Schorr:

After earlier having been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and melanoma, so cancer number three.  Two young girls.  How old are they now? 

Jennifer Zarou:

Now they're 12 and 15.

Andrew Schorr: 

Okay. So this is like boom, boom, boom, being hit with cancer.

Jennifer Zarou:

Little bit. 

Andrew Schorr:

Yeah, and yet you've seen the cancer diagnosis as a blessing.  I don't get that. Help me understand that.

Jennifer Zarou:

You really have to—you know, I read somewhere I think on your website you have to adjust your sails. When the sailing gets rough, you adjust your sails.  For me, getting diagnosed the third time was really, you know, I said to myself what message here am I missing? What am I not doing right? Am I not taking care of myself? You know, I couldn't figure it out, and then I said, you know, maybe I just need to figure out how to just be, number one, and to just take this and make the best of it.  

You can't fight it. When you get it for the third time, you just—you have to just keep going with it.  It was a blessing in terms for me of just literally changing everything.  I made a bucket list. I made decisions. I started writing out places I wanted to go, things I want to do, things I wanted my girls to see, and I just started living that.  And actually my life is better than it's ever been.  It's amazing how it happened.  

Andrew Schorr:

As you know, many people with CLL are diagnosed in their late 60s or 70s.  You were diagnosed at 48.  I was diagnosed at 46.  Little kids. Okay.  And you have a worry, will you be there for them. So how have you gotten past that? 

Jennifer Zarou:

So my first thought was when I sat with my doctor, when he gave me the diagnosis was that I'm not going to watch my children grow up, and it was an absolutely debilitating panic, fear, sadness.  And it lasted—I'm not going to lie, about 30 days.  I just went into a really dark place of my children are going to be motherless, and I have so much to teach them and so many places to take them. 

And then I just decided to start doing it. And I've—I just said, I'm going to do it.  I'm not going to stop. And my kids think I'm so cool. And I think they also see the benefit of it.  They do. They know I'm doing things I probably never would have done with them, traveling with them.  And one wanted to learn how to snowboard this winter. I said let's go get on a snowboard. So it's—I'm grateful in that it's pushed me to do things maybe I wouldn't have.  

Andrew Schorr:

Now you are living with cancer, and they know, your kids know... 

Jennifer Zarou:

Yes.

Andrew Schorr:

…you're living with cancer, but they don't see you as damaged goods, if you will. 

Jennifer Zarou:

You know what, they don't actually. They, you know, they—I don't like to compare me, but I'm always, Mom, you can have the friends over—we can have the friends over, because you're the only mom that will have the energy to do it. And, Mom, you do the driving, because you're the only one who ever volunteers.  So in a sense, I don't ever say no now, because I always think—I just want to do as much as I can while I can.  

So they don't see me as sick at all, and in their minds people live with cancer.  That's part of their reality, and it's a little bit sad, but with it I've taught them that they have to make the most of every single second they have. So while you'd never want to teach your children that—you never want them to get the message about sometimes how scary and horrible life can be, it's always—it can be a really positive message if you deliver it the right way.  And that's what I try to do with them, that we can take kind of a little bit of a sad, tragic situation and just make it as good as we can.

Andrew Schorr:

So this can apply to people of any age group but particularly people diagnosed at a younger age, in this case, what would you say to them?  Somebody's watching. They've just been told they have this disease they've never heard of.  Met a man today.  He was in tears, just recently diagnosed, his whole world turned upside down with a disease he never heard of. 

Jennifer Zarou:

Well, again, I talk about this a lot is that knowledge is power, for me, anyway, but I recommend it for anybody. When you really start to look at what CLL is, I mean, you really look at the options available for treatment, which are more now than they've ever been. And if you look at the amount of researchers we have, if you look at the amount of money and resources that are being pooled into CLL treatment, care and research, it's more than ever.

So if you kind of really look at all of that, it's really the time to have CLL.  It's much better than 10 years ago, and it's a cancer you can live with for the most part.  One of the things that people say to me all the time is there's no way you have cancer, you look so healthy. And, I mean, that can be a blessing and a curse at the same time, but you really can live with cancer. People have diabetes. I have friends with diabetes who are sicker than I am on a daily basis.  So it's knowing, really understanding what CLL is and trying to take the cancer word out of CLL if you can, and just keep yourself informed, because you can live with it.  You can live a really long time. 

Andrew Schorr:

So what's your view of the future? 

Jennifer Zarou:

You know I'm excited, honestly, about my future for probably one of the first times in my life, because part of empowering myself to take care of myself I have also gotten to realize really what I can do, which I'm not sure I ever realized before.  So I not only have the knowledge of the possibilities, but now I have the awareness that I can do it, so it's very exciting.

I think I will be healthy for a very long time.  I can't lie to you, I get a little bit nervous, you know.  I don't ever want to deal with thinking about treatment. But if I take it a minute at a time, I'm okay.  

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. Well, we hope that you string together thousands, millions of minutes. 

Jennifer Zarou:

I will. 

Andrew Schorr:

Jennifer Abraham, thank you.

Jennifer Zarou:

Thank you. 

Andrew Schorr:

All the best to you and your daughters… 

Jennifer Zarou:

Thank you, thank you.

Andrew Schorr:

…for keeping on as a cool mom, okay?

Jennifer Zarou:

Yeah, very important. Thank you. 

Andrew Schorr:

Cool mom, Jennifer Abraham.

Jennifer Zarou:

Thank you for everything you do.

Andrew Schorr:

Thank you, Jennifer. And look for her on our Patient Power website and really spreading the word that life goes on, and you can be cool, too.

Andrew Schorr.  Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.