Rhonda Zweber

NG Intro: My guest today is Rhonda Zweber. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, Rhonda relied on her faith and humor to get her through her year-long treatment.  Having three daughters, she and her husband felt it was important to be open and honest with them when they had questions or concerns and to reassure them that God would take care of them.  Sally, their youngest, was just four years old and she asked the questions that many friends and family wanted to ask but didn’t.  Those questions and their answers developed into a book called, Mommy’s Hats. It lays out Rhonda’s journey in simple terms to be used to help families understand what lies ahead of them when someone they love is diagnosed with breast cancer.  It also shows a lighter side of cancer.  In the heart warming photos throughout the book, Rhonda and her family are shown going about their everyday lives, laughing and enjoying life. We’re going to hear more about Rhonda’s journey today. Rhonda, welcome to the show!

Rhonda: Thank you Nadia, it’s good to be here.

Nadia: Let’s start at the beginning. Please tell us how was the lump discovered?

Rhonda: I found it in the shower and kept an eye on it for about a month. On Mother’s Day, 2007, I was walking the Susan G. Komen walk with my good friend, Lisa and her mom, Julie.  Julie was a 12 year survivor at that time and I told them about the lump.  Julie stressed how important early detection is and how it saved her life.  I knew I had to have it checked out.

Nadia: What was your first thought when you were diagnosed.

Rhonda: Well, my first thought about the possibility of being diagnosed was, “Thy will be done, just give me the strength to get through it.”  The day the doctor called and gave me the news, I was sad, but not as sad as I thought I would be.  Does that make sense?  I had many thoughts fly through my head. One was that I was going to have a team for the Komen walk the next year and I had to think of a cool name.  “Rhonda’s Rack” was the first one I came up with. Another thought I had, was that this was going to make an awesome journey album.

Nadia: What was your treatment plan?

Rhonda: The plan was four rounds of chemotherapy and then a lumpectomy.  During the lumpectomy, my doctor took out 10 lymph nodes and found that nine of them were involved, meaning, they had cancer in them.  That meant that I needed to have the entire breast removed.  I decided that I was going to have both of them removed, which I did three weeks later.  After I recovered from the bilateral mastectomy,  I had another four rounds of a different chemo.  The first four rounds made me feel nauseous; the second four rounds gave me terrible pain in my bones.  Then, it was time to go through the process of breast reconstruction.  I had tissue expanders put in the day after Thanksgiving and had them filled once, sometimes, twice a week.  This was very painful, too.  I remember Hailey, my daughter, had to feed me because I couldn’t lift my arms after a fill.  By the first of the New Year, I was beginning my radiation therapy.  Six weeks, every weekday.  And then, the day after the 2008 Susan G. Komen walk (where I had 96 people on my team!) I had my gel implants replace the tissue expanders and I also had a laparoscopic hysterectomy.  This was all done within one year.  I kid about getting the full meal deal!

Nadia: What helped you get through the tough times?

Rhonda: There weren’t many really bad days, but as soon as I was diagnosed, I asked to be on our parish prayer line and I believe all of those prayers and good thoughts really lifted me, along with my family and friends.  My sister, Robin, set up a caringbridge account and I was journaling on there almost daily, if not several times a day.  Do you know how CaringBridge works? I could journal at any time of the day or night and those who wanted to keep up to date with my journals, could check a box to receive an email stating I had updated my journal.  They could read what I had written and then if they wanted to, they could sign my guestbook.  Those entries got me through some of the toughest times.

Nadia: How did God play a role in this?

Rhonda: During the first few weeks of being diagnosed, I thought a lot about some of the things that had happened in my life leading up to my diagnosis.  1. what drew me to want to walk in the Komen walk for two years before being diagnosed? 2. why did I have pink ribbon golf accessories? There were many of these little “taps on the shoulder” from God, telling me there was something big about to happen.  He has given me the opportunity to give back to my family and friends and complete strangers, the love, compassion and support that I had received.  He has guided me in the direction to help other women and their families in any way that I can, whether it’s a phone call, an email, or just a listening ear.  Many women just want to talk to someone who has walked the same journey as they are traveling on.  Just recently, He has convinced me, along with another survivor, to start a breast cancer ministry at my parish, called the Pink Prayer Warriors.  We want to connect with the newly diagnosed and offer them faith, love and any type of support they need.

Nadia: How did your family help you?

Rhonda: My husband Val, was my rock.  His quiet strength got me through the most painful times in my life.  My immediate family took care of my personal needs. My family of friends brought us meals, sent my cards, and called often.  My family from church provided us with a cleaning service and of course, many prayers.  My caringbridge family sent me positive messages when I really needed them.

Nadia: The book, “Mommy’s Hats. How did it come about?

Rhonda: I wanted to remember the comments that Sally made because I knew she wouldn’t remember them, being only five years old.  And I knew I wouldn’t remember them, especially with chemo brain!

Nadia: What would you like to see happen with the book?

Rhonda: I would love to have the book in the hands of a newly diagnosed woman or man.  Whether it was something the hospitals/cancer centers/doctors would give to the family or easily available to purchase from bookstores.

Nadia: What surprised you most about cancer?

Rhonda: I thought I was going to be nauseous from day one of chemo to the last day, and I wasn’t.  There were many days that I felt like I didn’t even have cancer.

Nadia: Can you give some examples of reactions from people who have read your book?

Rhonda: a. One mom didn’t know how to tell her two small children. My book wasn’t even completely published at that time, yet I brought her my album that I had made online.  She read it over and over to her children and they began to understand what was happening to their mommy and weren’t afraid.

b. Another mom had two teenage boys who didn’t want to talk about anything especially, their mom’s breast cancer. I brought my book to her and told her to tell her boys that I needed feedback from a different age group of kids. By reading it, the boys had some of their questions answered about their mom, and it opened up opportunities to talk to their mom.

c. my favorite was this year’s Komen walk.  I was walking past a woman who, I could tell was in treatment.  She was hugging several women around her.  I assumed that was her team.  I offered my business card to one she had already hugged and told her that my book might help her.  The woman holding the card, read it and looked up at me and said, “She has your book!”  I was thrilled!  At that moment, The survivor turned toward me and, like we had been friends forever, she stretched out her arms and exclaimed, “Rhonda!”  She had recognized me from reading the book to her little boys every night!  We hugged and cried and hugged some more. Someone took our picture and I will treasure that picture forever.  We talked just for a few more moments before our families took us in different directions.  I told her to contact me, which she did. Again, a bond was instantly created and unconditional love for her and all of my fellow “sisters” continue to grow.

Nadia: What opportunities have you had to reach out to people?

Rhonda: It first started out by talking with a friend of a friend who had recently been diagnosed.  Many of them just wanted to talk with someone who had been through what they are about to go through.  Some wanted to ask a few questions, and others just wanted to tell their story and have me listen.

Then, I was asked to speak at Relay for Life.  That was very exciting but very nerve-wracking. Once I did that, I was hooked.  I really enjoyed telling my story, hoping to give others hope and encouragement.  From that, I was asked to speak at the St. Francis Foundation Gala.  This time, I was dressed in a formal gown and speaking to a room full of very influential people.  It was at this event, that I expressed my hope to publish my book.  Then, it was a segment on the 10:00 news, an appearance on Twin Cities Live, and another segment on the morning news.  I have also had the opportunity to talk at smaller school events, community events and was interviewed once on the radio.  I’ve had several book signings around the area and I always seem to meet someone who makes an impact on me with their journey.

I would like my speaking opportunities to branch out and I’m waiting to hear from Oprah and Ellen to appear on their show!

Nadia: Can you tell me more about CaringBridge.com?

Rhonda: www.CaringBridge.com is a website used to communicate with family and friends–and even strangers, what is happening in a family’s life when a crisis happens. It is free and anyone can go there to set up an account if there is a need.

Nadia: How is your health now?

Rhonda: Fantastic, I had lab work done every three months and I have now “graduated” to every four months.  Then, it will be six months, then, finally, I will have yearly check ups.  I will have bone scans, chest x-rays and other scans about once a year.

Nadia: Is there history of breast cancer in your family?

Rhonda: No, I consider myself making history! The statistic is one in every 8 women will be diagnosed.  I am one of eight children in my family.  I hope I’ve got our family covered.

Nadia: Is there going to be another book?

Rhonda: You know, I never thought I would be an author of A book, let alone ANOTHER book, but I think there might be.  I have been encouraged many times to do so.  We will see what God has planned for me.

Nadia: Can you tell me more about your ministry?

Rhonda: Jan and I wanted to invite the breast cancer survivors that were at our Parrish. I made a list of all of the women that I knew of.  I had 20 names! And, I found out soon, that I had missed several.  I couldn’t believe how many there were, just in our Parrish.  About a dozen women came to the first meeting in March. We discussed what encouraged each of us while going through treatment and what we wish we would have had.  We decided that we wanted to be compassionate group that would stay connected with those who are on their journey.  With a phone call or a note just to say hi and that we are praying for them.  The month of October was packed with opportunities to share with our Parrish what we are all about.  We are already discussing the possibility of reaching out to other Parishes to help them start their own ministry.

Nadia: Rhonda, I’ve had such a good time having you here. It’s been great to talk to you today about your extraordinary journey. Before we go, please give listeners your website or blog, and tell them again where they can get your book, and anything else you think they should know.

Rhonda: Thank you Nadia, I am pleased to be here. My website is www.MommysHats.com and my books are available right there at the website, and also at Amazon.com. 

Nadia sign-off: Thanks Rhonda, and bye everyone. Until next time.

Note: to listen to the original radio broadcast of this interview, click here.