Mark Zimmer heard about Illini 4000 from his experience reading Portraits at the University of Illinois Relay for Life last year with his daughter. At the time, he said, “I’ll come down next year, so please interview me.” Fortunately he was able to return and tell his story. Mark has battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in five bouts since his stage IV diagnosis in 2008. Through stem cell transplants, heavy chemo, and isolated hospital stays, the cancer was repeatedly forced into remission, but never cured. Last September, the cancer returned in a spinal tumor, requiring an allogeneic stem cell transplant. Mark’s brother is his hero, donating his matching blood stem cells. Though Mark’s fight has been long, he continues on with forward-thinking positivity and the support of others.
I tell my friends all the time that what I do is look through the front of the windshield; I don’t look in the rearview mirror. You know what this is: you have to see the obstacles in front of you, and you go through them; they’re speed bumps. Some are bigger potholes; some are bigger bumps. You know, you gotta slow down a little bit more, from that standpoint, but there’s no use looking in the back. What’s behind you is behind you, and then look forward.
I was looking forward and we would expect to do everything we would normally do. So as an example, with this last round of chemo I went through to knock it into remission, between treatment cycles 3 and 4, my wife and I went to Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia for 2½ weeks, over our 25th wedding anniversary. So it wasn’t going to prevent us from going. There were some things we had to kind of accommodate… We ran from 8:00 in the morning to 4:00 in the afternoon, and then I took a nap, and then we’d go out at night. But we went to six different cities, basically about three days a piece. And with that, my wife was accommodating, but we all looked at it as a bump. It wasn’t a thing that defined our life because we’re looking forward to a long life together, and that’s happening.
One of my customers, when I was first diagnosed, put me in touch with a friend of hers who had the exact same type of cancer I had, and he was about a year ahead of me or so, so he had started his treatment about a year previously. So this gentleman was a complete stranger to me, and he opened himself up, and I talked to him. One of the things that’s challenging, sitting in my chair, is that people want to be empathetic to you – they want to talk about their aunts or their brother or their parent or loved one. Not having experienced it, it’s kind of tough to go and have that empathy – ‘til you’ve lived it. And this complete stranger, I was able to open up to and talk about the unknowns, to the point where there were things I could share with him that I didn’t feel like sharing with my wife because I was trying to be stoic and strong in front of her. I could open up to this complete stranger about some of my fears for the future, facing this great unknown. I have tried to be an advocate to do that for other people – friends of mine will say, can you talk to my uncle or my grandfather in-law and I’m always willing to do that for them.
I eat healthier. I have three children, and none of them eat meat. My wife and I are carnivores. They’ve kind of turned me into eating healthier. I’m still not a big vegetable person, but I eat smaller portions. I’ve read a lot more books; I try to stay healthier in general. One of the things that they encourage you greatly to do is stay active. And if you work out, work out because it just helps your whole body to heal. My attitude right now is I love to play golf. I talked to the stem cell doctors and they’d never had this, but they’re bringing in a putting green for my one-month stay at the University of Chicago. I can work on my putting practice! So I’ll take a lot of money this summer when I get back on the golf course with my friends.
Recognize that your life is forever changed. You never feel the same, even when my cancer goes into remission. You never feel the same; there are always these fears. And that’s one of the things that I think that the cancer community needs to do a better job of. People have a thought that once I get cured or in remission, I’m always going to be right back, exactly where I was. That’s not true. But again, life’s all about experiences, and you are what your experiences are, right? I would also tell people, don’t feel that we have to do everything to the same level. When I played golf, I’d carry my golf bag – it was a nice workout. When I started playing, I could only play 9 holes, and I had to take a golf cart. Well, the important things wasn’t to focus on what I couldn’t do; it was to focus on what I could do – I could go out and play golf, right? That was the important part. Sometimes people have a tendency to focus too much on how it’s changed your life, sort of thing, versus what you’re able to do.
My boys and I say, “We love you,” every time we get off the phone. With boys that were high school age or are in college, that’s not the favorite thing to do, but there’s no shame in that, right? We recognize that you have to look a little bit more in the present and appreciate those types of things. When I think about a friend that I haven’t talked to in awhile… I just get that moment when… you see that movie that reminded you of them. I pick up the phone. If they’re around, they’re around; if not, I’ll tell them, “Hey, I saw this, thought of you,” what not. I seem to cherish moments more, certainly. I stay in touch better with people.
What do I value most? When I was diagnosed, I had one kid in junior high, and two in high school. I valued getting to see them do all the things as they matured. You know, from things like high school to college graduations. Because, when I first got diagnosed, I was stage IV – so not a perfectly great outlook over a five-year period. So I set both short-term and intermediate and long-term goals. Focusing on the short-terms when you’re feeling really bad, and as you start feeling better, you start thinking further out in the future.
My daughter took the negative of my experience and turned it into a positive, where she started a Relay for Life team in high school and did that for a number of years. One of the things that touched me very, very personally, very deeply, is last year when Illini 4000 had your portraits up, there was a gentleman who had made a comment which I think is amazing. I wrote to my daughter and her forty-some team members; tried to get them inspired a little bit. And I talked about how hard it was to raise money and talk to people and ask them to give money. That’s a very, very difficult thing to do because you feel like you’re imposing and what not on folks. With that, here’s the part that I stole from this gentleman: I said, “If you think that’s hard, by far the worst day – I’ve lost both my parents – by far the worst day was telling my kids I had cancer and looking at their faces.” So my goal would be that we eradicate cancer so that no loved one, parent, son, daughter, or grandparent would ever have to look at somebody that they held dearly in their heart in the eye and see the same face that I saw back, where you literally saw the life almost sucked out of their eyes… out of their soul. I think that was part of the positive attitude piece of saying, “Okay, here’s the game plan, and we’re gonna attack this and this is what we’re gonna do.”
Marilyn Wyss Princeville, IL
AnnMarie Cross Sidell, IL