Debbie Zelman: Balancing stomach cancer with a greater purpose

How do you survive a death sentence?

Luck, good doctors, experimental treatments, an integrative medical routine, love, support and a bigger purpose.

Those are the factors that have helped Debbie Zelman survive for five years after she was diagnosed with Stage IV stomach cancer, which carries a survival rate of only 4 percent for five years.

If you meet Debbie, you immediately want to support her efforts to find a cure for stomach cancer. She is upbeat, energetic and positive. She reminds all of us not to sweat the small stuff in our daily struggle with work life balance but to look for a greater purpose. Debbie now balances her personal health with a mission to help others with the disease as founder and president of Can't Stomach Cancer.

I hope reading her story inspires all of you as much as it has me.


Health — and purpose — keep angst in check

A cancer survivor’s example underscores the importance of a greater purpose in keeping work, life and health in balance.
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Debbie Zelman, cancer survivor and founder of Can't Stomach Cancer.
        Debbie Zelman, cancer survivor and founder of Can't Stomach Cancer.    


By Cindy Krischer Goodman

            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. Zelman had turned 45.

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

In our daily quest for work/life balance, we live in the present, trying to get dinner on the table, the sprinklers fixed or meet a work deadline. But then comes a health crisis and all our mundane “to dos” seem inconsequential. In October, as the country gives our attention to cancer survivors, people like Zelman remind us that balancing personal health with a job that makes a difference for others is the ultimate balancing act.     

      It was only five years ago that Zelman was zooming between the demands of her own Broward County law office and her home life with three young children and husband. And then, her meals just wouldn’t stay down.

Doctors first told her she was suffering the effects of stress. Weak and famished, Zelman checked into a Plantation 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.

It seemed the most shattering news Zelman could possibly receive.

But Zelman, whose youngest was only three, immediately reacted obstinately.   “I cannot and will not picture my kids without a mother.” Zelman 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, Zelman 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, 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, now a national non-profit charity based in Davie and called Can’t Stomach Cancer, has turned into something giant and inspirational.

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.

Thanks to her efforts, Can’t Stomach Cancer now has eight chapters across the country. She now sits on the Esophago-Gastric Task Force of the National Cancer Institute.

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,” Zelman 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.”   

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Debbie and mom 

Debbie Zelman, founder of Can't Stomach Cancer, and her mom, Madelyn Zelman, secretary and board member of Can't Stomach Cancer.

The Work/Life Balancing Act

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