Growing up, we’re all taught to trust in voices of authority. This is especially true among women, specifically when it comes to their health. Viki Zarkin was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic cancer over 11 years ago, and since that point has built a platform for herself to teach women how to challenge the status quo when it comes to their health, and find their voice.
When it comes to the healthcare industry, women are often overlooked and not taken as seriously as men when it comes to their medical issues. One study found that women who went to the emergency room with severe stomach pain had to wait almost 33% longer than men with the same symptoms. That’s just one of many statistics regarding the lack of proper medical care women receive.
There’s unfortunately still a major gender bias in the healthcare industry. When women complain about their health, they’re often told it must be hormone related, or all in their head. It seems like an archaic way of thinking, however, the issue is still extremely prominent, and hundreds of women are dying every year because of it.
Viki Zarkin is an author, motivational speaker, and coach with over a decade of experience talking with, and advising, women on how to become better advocates for themselves, challenge misogynistic status quos, and listen to their instincts over anything.
Over 11 years ago, Zarkin was diagnosed with breast cancer, finding out later that it was actually Stage 4 metastatic cancer that had spread to numerous areas of her body. I had the opportunity to speak with Zarkin recently for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and she told me the inspiring story about how she turned a fatal cancer diagnosis into a decade long career where she helps thousands of women find their voice.
“No one teaches you how to be your own advocate when it comes to talking to doctors, navigating treatment, and getting all the facts about what you specifically are going through. This is especially true among women, most women I’ve talked to throughout the years are going into their treatments unprepared and uninformed about what they’re actually going to endure.”
From the start of our interview, I could hear Zarkin’s positive and motivated attitude, it was infectious. I wanted to know more about how she was able to become that person after receiving a diagnosis that would devastate most individuals. She explained to me how the day she received that diagnosis, she could feel the old her die while a new, more confident, version of herself emerged.
“I remember getting the call that I had breast cancer. Initially we didn’t know how bad it was or what form it was, we just knew it was there. At the time, my view on breast cancer was that it was more of a curable disease, so I walked into Johns Hopkins Hospital ready to rock and roll, so to speak, and kick this thing’s butt. I ended up enduring a lot of medical tests, and after a while I was told that I would be meeting with one of the best oncologists at Johns Hopkins.
When I saw the oncologist for the first time, he started talking, and I immediately felt like a student in one of the Peanut cartoons when the teachers started talking, and all you hear is ‘wah, wah, woh, wah, wah…’ it was a lot like that. The doctor was throwing out all of these medical terms, not making eye contact with me, and overall I was just getting overwhelmed. After he was done speaking, my eyes lasered in, because that silence in the room gave me a moment to actually hear what he had said.
He said that he was in touch with all of his colleagues at Johns Hopkins, they all reviewed my case, and that he was sorry, but there was nothing they could do for me. He then proceeded to tell me I should go home and start getting my affairs in order. It was genuinely shocking. Like I said, with breast cancer I had the assumption that ideally I could get a surgery and move on with my life, and when I learned that was nowhere close to my situation, the old Viki seemed to have died, and the one I am now began emerging.
I literally jumped out of my seat and lunged at the doctor. I pulled him in really close to me, because I really wanted him to see ME, not a patient, me. We were eye-to-eye, and I told him: ‘you talk about meeting with all of your colleagues, and getting all their opinions, but you never asked me. You never asked me what I wanted, and what I want now, and you have to know I am going to be the one. I am going to make it.’
I told him I don’t care what he had to cut off from me, stick into me, or treat me with, I was a mom with young children, and I was going to make it.
At that point I realized I had my hands on the doctor so I stepped back for a second and took a breath, but that’s what I mean when I say the old Viki died that day. I found a fight and confidence in myself that I never knew was there, and I was ready to really give it my all, which is exactly what I did.
The doctor then looked up directly at me and said ‘I can’t promise anything, but how about if we start with a chemo regimen,’ and proceeded to lay out a chemo plan for me when he then asked, ‘is that okay with you?’ At that moment, I knew nothing about cancer, let alone the type of cancer I had, but I knew that I bought myself some time. Time to figure out what was really going on in my life and what my next steps would be.”
Zarkin has Stage 4 metastatic cancer, meaning after all of those initial tests it was discovered that her cancer was all over her mediastinum; in the neck, esophagus, chest wall, mammary glands, left ventricle of the heart, left lung, and all throughout the breasts. After hearing the list of places this cancer decided to invade, Zarkin’s will to fight it off grew even larger, as did her confidence.
“Honestly, I just wasn’t having it. I may not have known a lot about cancer in that moment, and I was still in a bit of a haze from getting all that information, but I knew that no one else was going to raise my kids, I was going to be the one to raise them, and a cancer diagnosis was not going to stop me no matter how bad the doctors said it was. From that point on, I was in fight mode.”
“I made a promise to God that if I could raise my children I would do anything I can to help women. So now that I’m an empty nester, I think it’s my turn to start my second phase of life. Whether that be through coaching, motivational speaking, my book or the programs I’ve been working on now, it’s my hope and prayer to make a difference in this world and the lives of women.”
Before Zarkin could spread her gift of positivity and strength with the rest of the world, she had to build it up within herself. She described how in her initial months of treatment, she started teaching herself how to take care of her body, mind, and spirit, but the chemotherapy took a lot out of her. Any energy she did have was reserved for the people who meant the most to her, her children.
“I always knew that I needed to do whatever I needed to do to make it, and that was genuinely the first step. I entered into this sort of ‘tunnel vision’ of fight mode in my own head and body. I wasn’t totally there, metaphysically speaking, as I was saving part of myself completely for my children. The energy that chemo and this disease take from you is daunting, but I always saved pieces of me to make sure I had time for my kids every day. Every other part of me I dedicated to fighting the cancer. Like I said, no one else was going to raise my kids, and I continued to tell myself that.
Before my cancer, I didn’t even do yoga when it came to self care for my physical and mental wellbeing. It’s interesting to think about that because now I realize how in control I am of my own journey. When you take the time to take care of yourself in all aspects of your being, things become clearer. I learned meditation on my own, which helped me cope with the pain of my treatments. At the time I didn’t even realize how self-sufficient I was as I was practicing all of these self care techniques. It wasn’t until I started writing my book that I realized how much of an actual difference I made for myself throughout my journey.”
Throughout those initial years of treatment, Zarkin was also teaching herself how to become her own best advocate, especially as a woman dealing with one of the most aggressive forms of cancer in existence. In fact, after 11 years of living with Stage 4 metastatic cancer, Zarkin has discovered that she is the only one alive living with her condition.
“I discovered that I am the only one alive today with my aggressive form of cancer, which is actually crazy. I can’t think of a better word because to me it is still so crazy that today, 11+ years after my diagnosis, I am the only one alive with this form of cancer. But at the same time, I think there’s something terribly wrong with that. There are so many other women who should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me today, they too deserve to tuck their children into bed at night. So, it’s up to me to fight for them, and fight I will. Women are dying and it’s just not necessary.”
Zarkin then went on to explain to me how she initially got started in her career as a renaissance woman for advocacy when it comes to women and their health.
“I’ve always been a strong supporter of women. I majored in broadcast journalism in college, so the field of communications is always something I was very comfortable with. Through that educational journey I also learned motivational speaking was a huge passion of mine, because of how many individuals you could inspire through it, and because of how personal it becomes.
So when I got sick, I wanted to find a way to express, and use, my situation in a way that could help others. Motivational speaking became the obvious choice because I quickly realized I could reach a large audience in a short amount of time. The larger the group the better, and obviously I want to reach as many people as possible, which is also what led me to writing my book.
I initially started writing I Am The One on the ten year anniversary of my initial diagnosis. I realized through writing that up until that point, I never really looked back on my life, because of how important the present moment became for me. Writing this book not only was cathartic, but it opened my eyes to everything I have gone through. It made me realize that every day after that initial diagnosis was spent living to the fullest, and using my voice and strength to fight for my kids, my husband, others, and of course, myself.
I’m hoping with the publishing of I Am The One, I can reach a whole new audience of individuals to help. You know that phrase ‘the louder you become, the more you can help?’ When I started this whole journey that always stuck out to me, which is the reason I’m always working on the next best opportunity to spread my message.”
“I’ve fought so hard to live, I’m certainly not going to spend my days complaining about the pain I’m in. Complaining about it won’t make it go away, so I really just try to live for every single day, and part of that for me is making sure I try to help at least one person a day. A day where you can make a difference in someone else’s life, no matter how small, is a day worth living.”
“I have been getting maintenance chemotherapy for the past 11 years, and I will continue to get it for the rest of my life. It’s demanding, causes the worst side effects; I have horrible joint pain, rheumatoid arthritis, a hip with lacerated ligaments, etc. Honestly, being the only one like me alive, I know that nobody really knows what to do for me, except for me. If I don’t take the time to research, advocate for myself, or find a way out of a mess that I might be in, who else will? That attitude really inspired so many of the projects that I’ve worked on within the past decade.”
At this point Zarkin and I started talking about all the projects, events, and programs she has developed and grown throughout the past decade, and the amazing impact they’ve made on the many people Zarkin has connected with.
“I really do feed off the work I do, it’s invigorating for me. I would give all my strength just to see a lightbulb go off in someone’s eyes. Knowing that I’ve helped even just one person is what fuels my energy everyday, which is why I’m so excited to have my book published especially for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
The book originally started as a legacy story that I was going to give to my children. I’ve been sick for their entire young life, and now they’re ready to go off into the world and fly on their own. As a mom, I know it’s their right and their turn to take that leap, but I wanted to have this book as a major piece of me that they could have for when I’m not here. I wanted them to really see how I fought for them with every fiber of my being. Like I said, I wasn’t going to let anyone else raise my kids, and I wanted them to know that my strength and my love for them is what helped me get here today.
As I continued writing, however, I realized how many more people could benefit from the lessons I’ve learned and taught myself throughout the years, so I decided to publish it. When my book was finally where I wanted it to be and ready for publishing, I knew that I wanted to do something that would parallel the message of the book in my own professional life so that I could reach an even bigger audience of individuals to help.
So, I created a course that mirrors a lot of the lessons that I self-taught myself throughout the book. Believe it or not, there are no courses out there today like the ones I’m offering. There’s no courses that teach you the pitfalls, or how to cope with the devastation that unexpectedly appears throughout a cancer journey, but life as well. You reach a point where you just get tired of all of it, the fighting, trying to manage the insane medical costs that come with cancer treatment, and the million voices coming at you about what’s best.
You have to be so mentally strong to take on something like cancer and its treatment. You need all the tools in your toolbelt to fight, and you need to learn how to have a positive attitude while doing it. That’s really one of my biggest goals with the book and the course, I want to help women especially learn how to become advocates for themselves. Have those moments where you speak up, make a doctor look you in the eye and have them see that you’re not a patient, you’re a person, and you’re ready to do whatever it takes.”
She didn’t just stop there either. Beyond her motivational speaking engagements, book, and online course, Zarkin has worked non stop on developing original content and services for individuals who are looking to gain confidence and clarity in their own lives.
“One of the creative projects I have on my website now that I would’ve never pictured myself doing in the past, is an exercise video. I literally taught myself a set of brand new exercises and ways to make my body move when I was at some of my weakest points. Immediately I then thought of how many other individuals out there have some sort of physical or mental ailment that prevents them from getting traditional exercise. All of this began to snowball into where I am now in terms of the services, programs, readings, etc. that I put out into the world for others to take advantage of.”
Beyond all the amazing work Zarkin is doing under the ‘I Am The One’ umbrella, she also recently began developing a new movement called Lunge For Healthcare, which has the specific goal of helping women become their biggest advocate in the doctor’s office, but also help change the system from the inside by reaching out to healthcare providers about this prominent systemic issue.
“I’ve developed a new movement called Lunge For Healthcare, specifically to help encourage women to become their own number one advocates in the doctor’s office. As of right now the movement is still just getting started, but after a while, I plan to have our message spread globally. There’s two major aspects to this movement that I want to make clear. The first is all about teaching women to always advocate for themselves. Not all women get to have an equal education, and obviously, all women don’t have the same upbringing, so the importance of having confidence in their bodies was not always taught. This is because most mothers weren’t taught that in earlier generations. Women from all different races and classes are treated differently. It is up to our generation to break that cycle and raise our daughters with strength of self. We must set the example by standing up for our own health and being our own advocates.
I’ve coached women who have not wanted to hurt their doctor’s feelings, so they don’t ask to change their treatment. That’s a real issue that happens so often. We need to teach our daughters, the next generation, that this is simply not acceptable. We understand our bodies more than anyone. I would never discount any medical advice or treatment either, I literally wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them, however, I really wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for me. That’s something I want every woman to understand entering into a doctors office. Following your instincts when it comes to things happening in your body is the most important thing you can do for your health.
The second half of the movement is about reaching out to doctors and tackling this issue from the inside. Our doctors themselves need to listen to patients more. If doctors took five minute at the beginning of the examination and listened, companies could save millions. Listen first, diagnose later. This way, lots of pill popping and surgery could be avoided, and more importantly less women would die.”
“As girls we’re raised to believe that these individuals in white coats have the authority and knowledge to know what’s best for us, and that sort of blind trust we have to individuals in power, especially men, sticks with us. It can be intimidating to tell a doctor ‘I really don’t like what we’re doing and would like to discuss other options,’ but at the end of the day, that simple sentence could save your life.”
The energy Zarkin carried throughout our interview was truly inspiring. Her positivity and confidence in everything she does is absolutely infectious, which is why she’s had such great success helping other women find their voice. Her philosophy of advocating for yourself and finding your voice can be translated to any sort of difficulty that appears in life. Which is why she has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. Her goal is to continue to reach as many people as she possibly can.
“I already have a list of goals for the future and the next steps I want to take with my speaking, book, and overall service to the world. As you can tell, I really never slow down, and I have no intention of doing so either, especially because I know for a fact that the work I’m doing is making an impact. I’ve been through so much in my life and it’s led me to see the world differently than I did over a decade ago, it’s a lot clearer. I have an intuition for this, and as someone who’s been on every side of every fence of my battle, I can stand up and say without a doubt, that there is a real issue in our healthcare industry when it comes to women being overlooked, underappreciated, and misdiagnosed. I’ve literally experienced it first hand.
Ideally I’ll be turning my book into a movie to reach an even wider audience, and once the pandemic begins to slow down I’m so looking forward to being able to get back into live motivational speaking events. There’s nothing like that in-person energy of watching so many people realize they are in control of their own lives and can stand up for themselves whenever they feel it’s right.
I have all of these continuous goals because I don’t think people realize how powerful systemic misogyny is. I mean the fact that I’ve spoken to so many women who would literally rather stay on a useless treatment that’s not benefitting them in any way than hurt their doctors feelings – when they’re the ones paying for the doctor visit and treatments anyway – shows me that there’s still a lot of work to be done, especially within the healthcare system itself.
In general, preventative medicine has never been more prominent than it is today, and I personally believe it has to do with the fact that more individuals, especially women, are learning to become their own healthcare advocates. So many people I’ve talked with are finding out that the treatments they’ve been on weren’t actually doing anything to improve their condition, but instead making it worse; which could easily be avoided by a simple conversation. Why would we not want more preventative medicine that could help us avoid surgeries and heavy medications?
I always encourage women to tap into their own instincts, because we all have them at the forefront of our minds everyday, some of us just choose to ignore them. They choose to ignore them because that louder societal voice is telling them to trust the individual who specifically went to school and trained to be in this field. But just because they have all of that knowledge about medicine, doesn’t mean they know anything about you. Don’t let that louder voice of authority minimize your concerns and questions.
The goal is to hopefully get individuals to save a lot of the money they would be spending on healthcare through preventative medicine and in depth conversation. This way, insurance rates will ideally go down, and the money that these major companies are saving can be redirected and used for things like mammograms, and other preventative tools that could help save a woman’s life.”
Zarkin is truly one of the most inspirational individuals I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with. Her story illuminated nothing but positive energy and motivation to change the way our healthcare systems take care of women. Her work has been widely recognized and has helped thousands of individuals gain the confidence they need to find their voice.
“If I can help one person at a time, as long as I see that light go off, that’s it. That means the world to me. I don’t always hear about the successes of people who come see me. You know once you gain that self-confidence and respect, you often go out into the world and use those tools to create a great life for yourself, so I don’t always hear back from those people and that’s okay. I love the fact that so many people have used the knowledge they’ve gained from my experience to go out into the world and advocate for themselves.
Genuinely, I want to see less people dying. I want to leave some sort of legacy that continues to tell women and people everywhere that they’re instincts should be trusted, and discussed. I hope one day I can look back and literally see that the work I started has led to a multitude of accomplishments, and lives saved.”
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.