I met Monica several years ago at our mutual friend’s baby shower but I knew her name long before that. She and my brother in law have been friends since high school. She traveled to Egypt to study abroad in college and a group of friends went to visit her. I also know Monica’s last name because when our mutual friend gave me her logins to use and her security question was, “What is your best friend’s last name?” she told me, Zealand, and now I have that saved in a note on my iPhone.
Several months ago our mutual friend told me that Monica had been diagnosed with breast cancer. My immediate thought was, How? She is so young! Followed by, she will beat it, this is a common form of cancer, right? Only to later find out that she has a rare form of breast cancer that had already metastasized to stage 4. In light of this diagnosis, Monica has maintained a positive sense of resilience and gratitude that is immeasurable. She has agreed to share with us what the reality of living with terminal illness means for her in hopes that she can raise awareness, funds for further research and remind each of us of the importance of gratitude despite our circumstances.
MM: Tell us a little bit about yourself, who you are and what you do:
MZ: I grew up in Howell, New Jersey in the house where my parents still live. My mother is African-American and my father is Irish/Polish-American. They met in a church almost 50 years ago and have always been trailblazers. They got married around a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in many states and when I was 1, they opened up the first home for children with AIDS in the country. The AIDS Resource Foundation for Children.
I had a privileged upbringing. Not in the silver spoon sense but in the sense that I was exposed to the world, the good and the bad but there was always so much more of the good.
Being the youngest of 3, I am ‘the baby” of my family. There are 12 years between my sister and I and 7 years between my brother and I and we are all very close. My sister lives in D.C. but if 2PM rolls around and we haven’t spoken at least twice something feels off. I get to see my brother most mornings at school “drop off” and it brightens my day!
I went to Rutgers University where I majored in Political Science with a focus on Middle Eastern studies and Arabic. I was heading to college right after 9/11 happened and our country felt so divided. I guess I saw language and education as the universal connector. Also, my best friends were Egyptian and I was tired of not knowing when they were talking about me!
While I was at Rutgers I started working for Johnson & Johnson and never left. However, I feel like I’ve had 3 different careers in 13 years. I have met some of the most amazing people at J&J and I am so grateful for that.
I met my husband, Aaron, in an elevator one September night while we were both students at Rutgers and we fell in love pretty quickly. After 7 years of a long-distance relationship, we married in 2013. I graduated from The LeBow School of Business in 2014 and we had Olivia, my daughter, in 2015. In 2016 we bought our first home in my dream town of Maplewood, NJ and in 2017, right after my daughter turned two, I was diagnosed with Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC). This diagnosis took me by surprise because I was otherwise healthy and even planning on having another baby.
When we first spoke you mentioned the “reality” of living with terminal illness, can you tell me more about what that means to you? Why did you choose the word “reality” instead of another word?
MZ: It means that my metastatic breast cancer diagnosis has put me into this new group of people with unique thoughts, experiences and feelings not shared by the majority of people. Tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone but I have more of a reason to believe that it is less of a promise to me. Statistics suggest I may not be able to see my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. And that is really real. There are the things in life that you think you know about and then there is the reality of those things once you are living them such as jobs, marriage, motherhood, adulthood, chronic illness, terminal illness, etc. You don’t actually know the reality of something until it becomes your reality.
A quote that has become my mantra:
“To be bold and behold is to move forward with courage, strength, faith and love. To face your fears and love your life with grace and gratitude. To take nothing for granted whenever possible choose to see the beauty before you.”
Can you share with us what this means to you? What you hope others to get from this and why a positive outlook is important to you.
MZ: Something you hear a lot about after a cancer diagnosis is something called “cancer clarity”. It is this new perspective and focus on what is really important and finding new meaning in the everyday things. It really can be a beautiful thing.
I never knew how beautiful the sunlight shining through my bedroom window was until I woke up the first day after my diagnosis and the sun was on my face. I still had breath in my lungs and feeling in my toes. I had an urge to go dancing and that’s exactly what I did.
That is what it means to me to behold. To stop, look around and take in all that is right in front of you. To be bold is to face your fears and find the strength to do what is hard.
I hope others take this as a reminder to live in the moment and honor the fire in their belly.
Many of us have bad days that can sometimes be confused for a bad life. What advice do you have for those who can’t see the light, beauty and gratitude in the hardest of times?
MZ: Make a list of the 5 things for which you are grateful at this very moment or the things that you would miss if they weren’t there. It can be anything. Here is an example of mine right now:
- Amazon Fresh. My weakened immune system makes the grocery store a hazardous place.
- Doc Mcstuffins. Otherwise, my 2-year old would not let me do this interview!
- Health Insurance. I thought our mortgage and taxes were high but they pale in comparison to my monthly medical expenses.
- A person I can call who knows what I am going through. MBC can be so alienating.
- Hoda Abdolrazek, for this!
We aren’t done! Now here is the important thing. Look at the top 3 things on your list and think of someone who may not have those things and do something to change that for them. Service to others has the most amazing way of shining light in the darkest of times.
Is there something, in particular, you think back on when you’re having a hard time? Your wedding, birth of your daughter? Or are the smaller moments more meaningful?
MZ: I have found that looking back isn’t always comforting. When I am having a hard time I try and look around instead. What can I see, touch, hear or feel that brings me joy right now?
I have found that looking back isn’t always comforting. When I am having a hard time I try and look around instead.
For example, I was at my oncologist for a checkup and she started her physical examination. She pressed her ice cold hands deep into my neck and chest looking for any new lumps that might indicate my cancer was spreading. Just then, I started getting a hot flash from my medically induced menopause. Her cold hands at that moment became a gift from God and it felt great.
When all else fails and there is nothing that particularly stands out to me, I always have the pictures of Olivia on my phone or a funny text message from Aaron that never fail to bring me joy.
I often reflect on what I want to be most remembered for and to me, it’s making others laugh. What do you want to be most remembered for?
MZ: I have no doubt that is how you will be remembered. For me, it’s a toss-up between my compassion and my potato salad.
Is there something you regret not doing? Taking a trip, getting a tattoo etc. Do you plan on doing it?
MZ: No regrets but I do have fewer inhibitions these days. Since my diagnosis, I put a blonde highlight in my hair and renovated our bathroom. As you can see, I’m really living on the edge!
What advice do you give to women about their health, the importance of annual exams etc.?
MZ: Feel your breasts. Squeeze them. Massage them. Know them. If something seems different, get it checked out. Breast cancer isn’t always palpable but in the event that it is, you want to find it as soon as possible. And for 8-10% of women, as in my case, it might have already metastasized by the time you find it. But that doesn’t mean your life is over. There is still fight left and there is still hope.
Tell us about the Be Bold and Behold Gala, what inspired this? Tell us more about it!
MZ: This my fight song, la di da da da…
So much and so many inspired this fundraising campaign. It started with the realization that a lot of research needs to be done in the world of MBC. Then, I was introduced to someone who had my same diagnosis and she was raising money for research and I was inspired to do the same. And I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by the most supportive family, friends, co-workers and strangers who made it clear they would be there for me in whatever I wanted to do and they have been. Every step of the way.
The fundraiser consists of an on-going request for direct donations to an organization called METAvivor through my Metaribbon Challenge. And my friends and I are throwing an AMAZING party on Friday, February 23rd, we will dance, eat and enjoy one another’s company. The event is opened to all!