“ Remember that you are an individual and not a statistic, get a second academic opinion, don’t be afraid to communicate all your feelings, reach out for support.
Selma Schimmel is an extraordinary woman. She is a pioneer in young adult cancer survivor advocacy. This amazing four time cancer survivor is: the founder and CEO of Vital Options International, host of the international cancer talk radio show on XM radio “The Group Room”, and still a strong advocate for young adult survivors. Selma is the author of “Cancer Talk: Voices of Hope and Endurance from ‘The Group Room,’ the World’s Largest Cancer Support Group.” We were very lucky to find time with her to ask her a some questions.
mK: Hi Selma! Thanks for taking the time to hangout with us! What/when was your initial diagnosis?
SS: I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 28 in 1983. 20 years later during an elective surgery to remove my ovaries because of my BRCA positive mutation, it was discovered that I already had ovarian cancer.
mK: Whoa! What were your symptoms the first time around?
SS: At 27 I found a breast lump. I also experienced deep chest pain because as it turned out, the tumor was imbedded in my rib cage. My diagnosis was delayed by four months because it was difficult to find a surgeon willing to do a biopsy.
mK: It’s sad that Doctors still don’t take young adults seriously. Why did you start Vital Options? How did it go international?
SS: I realized how hard I had to work at being taken seriously as a potential cancer patient. My mother has just died of ovarian cancer and so it was a particularly difficult time. I knew that there had to be a lot more young adults who like me– delayed in diagnosis for not being taken seriously as a potential cancer patient. Lack of information and awareness on behalf of young adults with cancer, coupled with the unique needs and psychosocial issues young adults with cancer face, led me to found Vital Options as the very first young adult cancer organization back in 1983. My mission on behalf of young adults with cancer was also healing for me. It allowed me to bring meaning to my cancer experience, to outsmart it in a way, to make cancer work for me. The goal: Put young adults with cancer on the map!
Vital Options expanded into cancer communications with the launch of The Group Room® cancer talk radio show 14 years ago. In 2000, broadcast and other collaborative opportunities expanded our reach to Europe, enabling us to work directly with cancer centers, oncology opinion leaders, patients and the advocacy community on a global level, leading Vital Options to become a registered European charity.
mK: Wow! What was the most difficult thing about starting it?
SS: Much like the uphill battle to get diagnosed, it was similar with Vital Options: Support For Young Adults With Cancer. Initially, it was very hard to be taken seriously and move the medical community towards acceptance that young adults are a distinct patient population.
mK: It takes a lot of strength to stand your ground. Who is your hero, who do you look up to?
SS: My parents. They are both physically gone now, but their life lessons and examples have only become stronger with the passing of time. I understand so much more as I have grown older.
mK: What motivates you?
SS: Inspiration. My motivation is fueled by passion and action. I love bringing ideas to life, a challenge, to problem solve, to connect people. When I really believe in something I don’t see obstacles, just ways around them and “no” does not translate so well for me. When I was trying to start Vital Options, still in my 20’s with no organizational experience, I got a lot of no’s and was told that I would not succeed. And the more I heard no, the more motivated I became.
mK: You really have to believe in what you are doing for it to succeed. If you had to chose one person to trade places in any time era with, who would it be and why?
SS: I cannot think of any single person in any single time, for each era reveals human brilliance and unique energy. I would like to be part of an impressionable history that unfolds new discoveries, treads new territory, and is rich in science and art. There are so many people throughout the course of time that I would love to trade places with long enough to learn and experience aspects of their journey.
mK: You already are doing some amazing things! What makes you laugh, cry, angry?
SS: The unexpected, acceptance, delay.
mK: Random question… What song gets you on the dance floor every time?
SS: Something Latin
mK: Hahaha! So can we expect to see you on Dancing With the Stars anytime soon? Just kidding. Serious question… When was the first time you felt like yourself after your diagnoses?
SS: When treatment was behind me. It’s not just physical, but it’s mental too. Completion of treatment is accompanied by a huge sense of freedom and hope.
mK: We ask everyone this to prove you are human… What is your guilty pleasure?
SS: It’s very simple – sleeping in really, really late!
mK: There is nothing wrong with that! What do you like to do in your spare time?
SS: Let my creative side out. It could be at the piano or with some clay. It may be to write, or read something unrelated to work. With a lot of spare time I would be somewhere out on the ocean.
mK: It seems like the best ideas come from dreams. When we combine sleeping in with being creative we almost always get mistaken for being “slackers” hahaha! What are you doing now?
SS: Thinking that these are very contemplative questions.
mK: Hahaha! Almost done… Before we let you off the hook. What would you do on your perfect day! Please describe.
SS: Harmony, success, beauty, the elements, feeling good – Any one of these things alone or in combination could make for a perfect day.
<mK: Very cool. A perfect day doesn’t have to be anything specific, although feeling good with beautiful, successful, harmonious people would be pretty nice… ☺ Any advice for people or loved ones that get daunting diagnoses?
SS: Remember that you are an individual and not a statistic, get a second academic opinion, don’t be afraid to communicate all your feelings, reach out for support.
mK: Tell us something people probably didn’t know… anything.
SS: Florida law prohibits unmarried women from parachuting on Sunday.
mK: Really? Did not know that. Any parting words for all the mAss Kickers?
SS: At the end of the show I always say – Be strong, be tough, be wise…
Selma Schimmel: pioneer, activist, Latin dance aficionado, and artistic soul. Thanks again Selma, for showing us that even in the face of dire circumstances, ordinary people can still do extraordinary things!