For over 20 years, my family has been lucky enough to know Deborah Shemesh, who inspires people by the dozens with her life story. She went from being told she had six months to live many years ago to an amazing cancer survivor who teaches yoga and meditation, creates lovely art, and is a great mother. Here is a previous article on Deborah. Please enjoy her life story, reprinted from her website.
Cancer is more than just the dysfunction of the body. It may be our fate, but we can turn that fate into a destiny if we move past the diagnosis. We are more than our bodies, cells, blood or bones – after the diagnosis we must call upon the vastness of our spirit to help us heal.
This is my story and my fight for life. Mine is a story of incredible spirit that carries me as I continue my physical battle with cancer, defying all odds. Physical victories were but one element of the fight, however. Along with it came the Herculean obstacles of emotional, psychological and spiritual elements. Furthermore, there was the horrendous social stigma and prejudice that comes with it—the judgments, the rejections, the ignorance in dealing with belief systems and statistics within the medical profession.
My illness took me beyond my past as an emotionally repressed child. I traveled a journey that taught me the values of giving and receiving love and support from a network of angels who helped guide me to find and hear my own voice. Their presence has enabled me to combat this life-threatening illness. As I have learned how to improve my quality of life, it has increased the length of my years. I have gained by defying the odds have been motivated to live so that I could raise my son, Adam. When I was too weak to go on, Adam was the tool to inspire me forward in my fight for survival.
Looking back in time, it does not seem so many years ago that I was once a successful swimwear model. In 1987, 33 years old, I lay curled up in a bed with my four-year old son, Adam. A second wave of nausea hit me and I fled to the bathroom. As I wretched over the bowl, heart pounding wildly, blood poured forth with clots lodged somewhere between my stomach and throat.
Adam screamed, “Mommy! Mommy! What’s wrong?” I tried to hold the door closed so that he could not see. I recalled a familiar scene seven years earlier, when my gynecologist, Dr. Coe, had stumbled upon a suspicious black mole on my arm. A biopsy was done immediately. The results—stage IV melanoma—my worst nightmare! How could this be? My family doctor had said it was nothing to worry about and had prescribed an ointment for the mole for over a year! I had trusted him. How could I trust any other doctor to dictate my fate again? My once-perfect body, the object of much hard work and maintenance, would be disfigured beyond my worst imagining.
I wondered if this was a visitation of punishment of some kind. Words from my childhood joined in a flood of self-belittling thoughts. Was I really never going to amount to much? Emotional scars from the past swirled a torrent inside me. Yet, something was different this time. Surging up like a buoy underwater, other messages came bobbing to the surface to recover my sinking heart. Hadn’t I challenged those incriminating feelings before, going on to become a world-class model? I cast a glance over my shoulder.
Now, my dream of continuing in the modeling profession would seem to be altering. What to do now? In denial and desperation, I made some strategic moves to secure my future dreams. I traded my lucrative modeling career for the stability of a secretarial job at ABC Entertainment. Then, knowing that there was a possibility that cancer may return, I refocused my dream on having a child. Sam, a charming Israeli 17 years my senior, seemed just as passionate about me as I was with him, and agreed to marry and conceive a child together. It wasn’t long, Adam just a toddler, before Sam found my medical challenges beyond his own emotional capabilities and chose to stay in the background of Adam’s life to provide support.
Now, seven years after the initial diagnosis, Dr. Morton’s words echoed in my mind, “The cancer will be back in five years.” I felt ashamed and bewildered as I went to work the next day trying to act as if nothing at all was wrong. I couldn’t hide it so well for Karlene, my co-worker, to notice that I was suffering, however. She asked me what was the problem. Karlene, frightened herself, discussed this situation with her boss. They both insisted that I see a doctor immediately. This was the first time I allowed myself to be emotionally supported because I could see that they cared.
My worst fears had become reality. The melanoma had beat a lethal track to my stomach. It would require surgery that would leave me with 20% of my stomach. Once melanoma gets a foothold and begins to metastasize, it spreads faster than any other cancer and is usually fatal. I knew I had to have help for my son to deal with my possible death. With much to prepare, I reached out apologetically, feeling shameful and embarrassed to impose myself on the goodness of others. I was so used to “doing it by myself.” The Wellness Community in Santa Monica was a venue for those suffering with cancer, and the price was right—FREE. I was so ashamed, but did finally agree to go to a session after significant encouragement and persistence from those close to me.
Adam was my little angel. Brushing my hair and touching my stomach as I lay recovering, he pleaded with me to get my carrot juice “so that you can be strong again”. Only four years old, he did not understand the depth of my illness. I had to prepare him.
My mind was set. I had to take charge of myself more thoroughly if I was going to live. A family therapist at The Wellness Community began the session holding two horses—a mommy horse and a baby horse. Adam watched as the therapist laid the momma horse down on its side. Four year-old Adam began to cry that the momma horse was dead and made the baby horse fall on its side, too. The therapist then asked, “What has happened to the little horse?”
More tears welling up in his large brown eyes, Adam said, “If the momma horsy dies, the baby horsy has to die, too.”
“But why?” asked the therapist.
“Because there is no one left to take care of the baby horsy!” His tears brimmed over and he wept. This statement was a revelation to me that I had to rectify. It became the turning point in my fight for recovery.
Eight months following my stomach surgery, I experienced more pain on my left side. The doctors seemed detached and gave me an array of reasons (or excuses as I heard it). Besides, I didn’t look like I was ill. Gilda Radner, who also attended The Wellness Community, stepped in and set up an appointment with her own doctor. Leveling with me, she convinced me that even though I wasn’t a “Saturday Night Live Player”, I still had a voice and was entitled to expect the best treatment available.
I met with a new physician, Dr. Leuchtor. I told him that I could feel a growth inside and convinced him to open me up again. My observations proved to be correct. A grapefruit-sized tumor was removed from my right ovary. I had a voice for the first time and it felt SO good.
By 1988, the cancer had spread to my ovaries and fallopian tubes. I was told by doctors coast-to-coast that I had perhaps six months left—find a home for my son and get my life in order. I began researching every new protocol available as friends and co-workers led a desperate search for a home for my beloved Adam.
In the mean time, I found an answer—a new treatment called Interleukin 2 with Gamma Interferon. Although I didn’t fit standard protocol procedure, I just knew this procedure would help me. Gail, a close friend of mine, knew the Director of the City of Hope Hospital and got me an appointment. The director looked at my file and repeated what everyone else had told me. It seemed too late for the treatment, there was nothing that could be done. With determination I told myself, “Yes, I CAN do something!” To the doctor, I said “What right do you have to sentence my life-and my son’s?” I was admitted the same week. I felt the treatment worked.
The local network aired a week-long documentary asking for help and support for Adam and me. The response was astounding. A wonderful home was found for Adam with the Paskal family, who possessed all of the qualities I wanted for my son. I would keep him with me as long as I could and negotiated weekend and evening visits with his new family.
Intense pain appeared again in 1991—this time in my left thigh. Once again, the cancer had spread, to the bone this time. Radiation along with other medications and pain procedures produced the start point of grand mal seizures, a new iatrogenic disease to deal with. Then in 1993, cancer was discovered in my hips and spine with spots noted on my liver. More research, more new treatments and remission. I was a fighter, a survivor, and I kept making a comeback unwilling to give up.
On a gray March morning in 1994, I lay in a coma state, which had been the result of a grand mal seizure during gallbladder surgery two weeks earlier. Adam and other family members surrounded my bed, watching as I lay motionless in a fetal position. My weight barely covered my 5’8? frame. In this altered state of consciousness, I heard the voices of my family and that of Dr. Rosenbloom, “Well, Deborah has given it a good fight. I’m sorry, but I believe it over for her.” Inside of my mind, I said, “No it isn’t over yet!”
In 1996, my prognosis looked grim. The resected stomach had ripped open and toxins began pouring throughout my already ravaged body. Barely conscious, last rites were given. I was too weak to fight. I had given up. A therapist friend asked Adam, “Are you going to be okay when your mom dies?”
Adam was instantly enraged. “How can you say that! My Mom hasn’t even died! How do I know how I am going to feel? I won’t give up on her! You can, BUT, I WON’T!” At that moment, my silent form must have felt that crying statement from Adam as I prepared to let go. Adam’s plea, fighting determination, and his cry of faith must have been heard by God. I could sense my own spirit mirrored in my son Adam. When I didn’t have the force of will myself, I drew strength from Adam to start healing once again.
No one believed I would survive my first diagnosis of malignant melanoma in 1980, let alone the ensuing cancers that invaded my body—metastasizing to my stomach and esphogus in 1987; ovaries and fallopian tubes in 1988 and 1989; Bone metastases in 1991, epilepsy with a dermoid tumor on my brain, tumors on both hips and sacrum. Statistics for surviving even one of these deadly cancers were minimal at best. Twenty plus years is a miracle. Over the years, I have appeared on numerous talk shows, including the Sally Jesse Raphael show as an invited guest. I’ve had the honor of appearing with highly respected healers and teachers such as Dr. Bernie Siegel and Dr. Harold Benjamin, founder of the Wellness Community. My story has been the subject of a Los Angeles Area Channel 7 news feature on cancer as well as many high-profile public service announcements which aired on 33 national TV stations in 1988-92.
My courage, determination and spirit had touched, among others, Gilda Radner, Lee Remick and Vince Edwards, who were not so lucky to have survived. Adam and my Public Service Announcements aired on all channels inspiring those afflicted with cancer and their families to seek support. As spokesperson for the Wellness Community my commitment has been educating others with cancer to spare them the frustrations of receiving the misdiagnosis that nearly cost my life. My message: 1) You are not a victim. 2) Take responsibility for your own life. 3) Don’t give your power away to anyone, not even to doctors. And, above all, 4) learn everything you can about your disease—the history, new treatments, everything. Lead the fight for your own recovery. It could make the difference and save your life. It had saved mine and given me precious time with my young son. The incredible journey my son and I took together formed a bond of love and support that made me a victor in my fight against cancer.
Today, in the year 2011, I remain a healthy spokesperson and model, as I consciously participate in all that I do, or do not do. My adult son Adam is a remarkable and kind young man who continues to enhance my life. I am most proud of being Adam’s mother and teacher, in addition to being a creative collaborator with him. I have been cancer free for ten years, without seizures or need for medications. Though my body is experiencing radiation induced osteo-neurcrosis; having to endure two total hip revisions with orthro-scopic surgery on my left knee, my spirit is indomitable regardless of physical challenges. I am passionate about my exercises and am ever so grateful to share these disciplines with my peers of all ages. My life is structured around my personal well being, simplicity, and making conscious choices. Please visit my Art Page which illustrates my creative expression in the unification and healing of mind, body and spirit. I know we are infinite, immortal, beyond body, unbounded and limitless in the field of all possibilities.