Take time to calm down — I found a channel on YouTube called “Progressive Hypnosis”. I’d put in my earbuds every evening when I got into bed and play one of the episodes. Helen Ryan has a beautiful, relaxing voice. I think she’s from Australia. She does guided meditations to (in her words) “listen, relax and let go of the unwanted thoughts and behaviours, and bring you positive and empowering ones.”
Cancer is a horrible and terrifying disease. Yet millions of people have beaten the odds and beat cancer. Authority Magazine started a new series called “I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It”. In this interview series, we are talking to cancer survivors to share their stories, in order to offer hope and provide strength to people who are being impacted by cancer today. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Claudia Zorn Schaefer.
Originally from Los Angeles, Claudia Zorn Schaefer is a marketing and communications professional who worked in higher education, technology and the nonprofit sector in Washington, D.C. for nearly 30 years before moving to Winston-Salem, NC in 2008 where she has been an active community volunteer. She plays the piano at Novant Health Cancer Institute — Forsyth and has led sing-alongs at the award-winning Elizabeth and Tab Williams Adult Day Center for seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. She and her husband Marcus enjoy long walks and time with their dog, Gustav, their third Boxer.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Encino, a suburb of Los Angeles, in the 1960s-’70s. There was a lot going on in music at that time — from Joni Mitchell and others hanging out in Laurel Canyon to the Burt Bacharach-Hal David songwriting team whose songs my mother played on the piano in our living room. In high school, at the suggestion of a friend, I volunteered at UCLA Medical Center in the Gastroenterology Department, where I was soon offered a part-time job as a lab tech while I was an undergraduate student at UCLA. I dreamed of working in the medical field but academically, the pre-med curriculum wasn’t my strong suit. I gravitated more towards writing and communications. The environmental movement, especially in California, was taking off, and that inspired me to study geography and urban planning. To better understand environmental affairs from a business standpoint, I got an internship in Washington, DC with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which led to my first paid position in the Chamber’s Western Regional office in San Francisco.
I moved back to L.A. to work on a political campaign and then a longtime state assemblyman before returning to Washington, D.C. in 1983, where I worked in public relations, marketing, and communications for various nonprofit organizations for nearly 30 years. In 2007, my college sweetheart “found” me online and I moved to Winston-Salem, NC where he was the CEO of a regional credit union. In Winston-Salem, I continued to use my skills and experience in marketing and communications by teaching as an adjunct faculty member at Salem College and doing some consulting work, but I focused most of my time as a community volunteer. Little did I know that my high school dream of working in the medical field would eventually materialize in a way that I never anticipated.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” — Mary Oliver
I was introduced to Mary Oliver in the early 1980s, and always kept a copy of her “New and Selected Poems” close at hand. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I started to reflect on my life and career, both paid and volunteer work. I thought about the choices I had made, some intentional and others that sort of fell into my lap. And most of my work was very fulfilling, in the sense of making the world a better place. To me, living a meaningful, purposeful life is the key to contentment, and dare I say happiness too. The prognosis for advanced or late-stage cancer — actually, two synchronous primary advanced cancers — could be six months or six years. And I thought to myself, Now what? What was I going to do now with my one wild and precious life?
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about surviving cancer. Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you found out that you had cancer?
I always enjoyed a healthy lifestyle. I attended Jazzercise classes. I took long, brisk walks with our dog. I had good stamina. I was very conscious of maintaining a healthy diet. I had become a vegetarian and rarely ate desserts, always asking the waiter at a restaurant to substitute items for healthier choices. In the spring of 2019, I started to feel winded just walking in my neighborhood. I had an unrelenting, constant cough. I suffered horrendous abdominal pains. I had an appetite, but I couldn’t eat much. My stomach expanded to the point that I looked pregnant (not a chance since I was in my early 60s!). The symptoms were baffling, not just to me but to my primary care physician and local gastroenterologist. I endured four months of extreme discomfort, and finally insisted that my doctors order a CT scan in July 2019, the results of which landed me immediately in the hospital. I was told I had two synchronous primary advanced stage cancers: non-small cell lung cancer and primary peritoneal cancer.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
To some extent, I was relieved that the symptoms I had been experiencing had a definitive diagnosis. And I was glad to be cared for by experts at Novant Health Cancer Institute — Forsyth. I started calling them my “A Team.” Of course, I felt some anticipatory grief that I might have only months to live.
How did you react in the short term?
In the short-term, I reached out to friends and sought out as much reputable information as I could find. I was also assigned two wonderful oncologists. I had been on the Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center Foundation board for six years, during which we had a tour of the Novant Health Cancer Institute, but I never thought I’d be spending time there as a cancer patient. Despite this, from the first appointment I found the people and the facility itself to be very comforting.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use? What did you do to cope physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?
Physically, I was so fortunate. I rarely experienced fatigue. In fact, I had to force myself to take naps and I didn’t experience any nausea either. We had just moved to a house across the street from beautiful walking trails. That was my special sanctuary. When the pandemic hit, I noticed more people walking and biking on the trails. It inspired me to compose a song that I titled, “Reynolda Gardens: Our Very Special Place” (https://youtu.be/xmB9cm7fW1w). I worked with friends to get their photos of the gardens to put together a short iMovie and upload it to YouTube. I don’t have a professional singing voice, and asked a friend to get in touch with a former alumnus of our local UNC School of the Arts who lives in NYC and has performed on Broadway to record my song in his apartment. It was a fun, creative collaboration that brought attention to the healing qualities of nature, especially during the pandemic.
Coping with cancer spiritually also involved close friends. I’m Jewish, and there’s just one synagogue in Winston-Salem, Temple Emanuel where I made several friends. These friends were aware that I had been composing music and writing lyrics and that I dreamed of hearing my music performed live. They worked with the rabbi to organize a healing service and underwrote the costs to hire members of our local symphony and music students from the UNC School of the Arts to perform some of my music during the service. Another friend, a former art director of a major creative agency in NYC and Winston-Salem, designed the cover of the service. I worked with our then-rabbi Mark Cohn to select the readings. I wanted the healing service to be universally appealing. The sanctuary was packed with friends, Jewish and non-Jewish. Childhood friends from Los Angeles and NYC surprised me by traveling to Winston-Salem to attend. A cousin from Los Angeles traveled for the first time to Winston-Salem and sang at the service. A friend hired a videographer, and I uploaded the video to YouTube (https://youtu.be/9vUnLcSdYdw) to share my then-90-year-old mother in Los Angeles and others who were unable to attend in person. It’s been a very special gift that I have viewed and shared several times.
I’ve continued to compose, and just a few months after my cancer diagnosis, my husband surprised me with a baby grand piano. I was overwhelmed with emotion. Since being diagnosed with cancer, many of my compositions have been personal reflections, such as “Forever Grateful.” I worried that I would die before having much time to play my baby grand. But the days have turned into months. And this summer will mark four years! Composing music, playing my baby grand piano, and sharing my music with others at the cancer center have helped me cope in many ways.
Is there a particular person you are grateful towards who helped you learn to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
It’s hard to select just one person. Locally, I have two friends, both breast cancer survivors, who helped me cope. The first being Dara Kurtz, who wrote a book as she went through cancer treatment titled, Crush Cancer: Personal Enlightenment From A Cancer Survivor and became a well-known blogger about her cancer journey where she has a goal to help others cope. My second friend Ronda Bumgardner Carter has had a tougher journey than Dara and has far exceeded her prognosis. She is an inspiration with every year that passes. Ronda pointed me to some great informational resources to keep up to date on the latest cancer studies. We text, talk and visit with each other often. We had similar careers in writing and communications but nowadays we talk about coping and living with cancer.
In my own cancer struggle, I sometimes used the idea of embodiment to help me cope. Let’s take a minute to look at cancer from an embodiment perspective. If your cancer had a message for you, what do you think it would want or say?
For me, the message is to make the most out of every single day. To take one day at a time and find gratitude in the smallest things (a sunny day, a phone call with a friend, a beautiful flower or plant in full bloom). They’re simple ideas that everyone could adopt.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? How has cancer shaped your worldview? What has it taught you that you might never have considered before? Can you please explain with a story or example?
Before I got cancer, I was so busy. I always had a checklist, work deadlines. I still prefer to be productive, but living with cancer has slowed things down for me internally. I’m much calmer, and when I’m not feeling at peace, I work at it. It took a cancer diagnosis for me to truly live in the moment, to treasure each day. Each simple moment. To not live in the past nor to live in the future.
When I was going through chemotherapy, there was a special volunteer who touched my heart. She came around to each chemo patient with a snack basket of goodies. We talked. She had a quiet, compassionate way about her. And there was another volunteer at the cancer center who played the guitar and sang “oldies” for the patients in the waiting area before getting chemo. Halfway into my treatment I thought to myself, if I get into remission, I want to be a volunteer. Because these two volunteers really made a difference in my experience. And lo and behold, I did go into remission in 2020, but it was also the onset of the pandemic. Volunteers were told to stay home and there was a hold on recruiting new volunteers. Thankfully, by summer 2021, I was able to start volunteering. I spend a few hours each week with chemo patients offering them snacks, beverages, and warm blankets. And if I sense they want to talk, we have some great conversations too. Sometimes, it’s tips for dealing with chemo. Or sometimes we just talk about our beloved dogs! Basically, I try to give my fellow cancer survivors hope. I share with them what’s going on with me — I had a recurrence in late 2021 and went back into treatment June-November of last year. I tell them that my hair is a wig. I’m “real” with them. But they also can plainly see that I feel well and look pretty good too! My hope is that they can envision a time when they will feel well too. I have met patients from all walks of life. People who I would not have met in my own social circle. As it’s been said, cancer doesn’t discriminate. rich, poor, black or white this could happen to anyone, which has given me the opportunity to get to know people whose lives have been very different from mine.
I also play the piano in the cancer center lobby. I would never have thought of doing that before I was diagnosed, but as a patient going through treatment, I found that the music provided by volunteers created a very comforting environment. I wanted to do that for other patients and whoever accompanied them for their treatment. I’ve curated a special collection of songs that are calming, uplifting, and melodic. In case someone recognizes the tune, I deliberately select songs that have inspiring lyrics. Patients stop by the piano and tell me how much they enjoyed the music, and that it lifted their spirits or helped them relax. I’m not a professional pianist, but I don’t need to be an expert to do what I do. Recently, a gentleman walked out of the radiation waiting room towards the piano. He stopped briefly, didn’t say a word, and put a folded $100 bill on the piano, next to the keyboard. I was flabbergasted! After two years of volunteering every Wednesday, I see some patients on a regular basis as most patients have a regular schedule for their treatment and appointments. But I didn’t recognize him. I told him, “I can’t accept this! I’m just an amateur pianist and a volunteer!”. He insisted that I keep it. I told him I would donate it to the Novant Health Foundation. He told me I should spend it however I wanted. I was in awe. I guess I’ve always thought that most people in this world are good and well-meaning. Certainly, volunteering at the cancer center has confirmed that worldview.
How have you used your experience to bring goodness to the world?
Getting diagnosed with cancer was an ah-ha moment for me to do something meaningful, not just for other patients-survivors but also for the team members at my cancer center who have treated me like family. As a cancer patient, survivor, and volunteer, I’ve seen first-hand the dedication and compassion of the cancer center’s team members, especially the infusion team nurses. I started making donations in their honor, and with the help of the Novant Health Foundation staff, I’ve been able to recognize these “guardian angels” with a special pin. Over the past year, I’ve been able to honor dozens of nurses.
What are a few of the biggest misconceptions and myths out there about fighting cancer that you would like to dispel?
There are misconceptions and myths around nutrition and cancer. Some cancer patients think that it doesn’t matter what they eat now because it’s too late to think about eating healthy — that’s to prevent cancer. I don’t subscribe to this line of thinking, although I have made allowances when it comes to sugar. Before I got cancer, I never ate desserts. I didn’t bake. Now, I enjoy ice cream (especially in the summer) in moderation. I bake banana bread (there are recipes that include applesauce and plain nonfat Greek yogurt, and I always reduce the amount of sugar that the recipe calls for). Cancer Services offers some good webinars on nutrition. Most recently, a patient showed me a social media video of a middle-aged man with small cell lung cancer who was “cured” by using the same medicine used in dog de-worming treatment. Fortunately, I’ve kept up to date on clinical studies done in the U.S. and abroad and it seems that there are legitimate drugs that are getting FDA approvals. These targeted drugs (for specific cancers, for specific genetic mutations associated with a specific cancer) are getting deployed in major cancer centers and to me, should be the first line of defense in fighting cancer. I encourage patients to seek out information on reputable websites (National Cancer Institute, etc.) and not get sucked into the stream of misinformation, at least bring it to the attention of their oncologist to discuss.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give to others who have recently been diagnosed with cancer? What are your “5 Things You Need to Beat Cancer? Please share a story or example for each.
1) Take time to calm down
I found a channel on YouTube called “Progressive Hypnosis”. I’d put in my earbuds every evening when I got into bed and play one of the episodes. Helen Ryan has a beautiful, relaxing voice. I think she’s from Australia. She does guided meditations to (in her words) “listen, relax and let go of the unwanted thoughts and behaviours, and bring you positive and empowering ones.”
2) Stop and smell the roses
If you’re able to walk, go for a walk — even if it’s just 10 minutes. Get out in nature. Breathe. And realize the beauty of the natural world. If you’re unable to walk, then find some videos that feature nature scenes!
3) Control what you can control
As a volunteer, I tell cancer patients going through chemo to control what they can control. Whether this means their attitude or their diet, whatever they can do to promote their own healing do it. As cancer patients, we’re told to drink lots of water. But why? I learned that water helps with digestion, fatigue, and a whole lot more. Cancer and COVID is a tough combination. Being immunocompromised during a pandemic is rough when human connection is so important for our emotional well-being. But we can take advantage of all the online resources, including online classes, yoga and support groups. Whatever you can do for yourself to promote your own healing can feel so empowering.
4) Eliminate negative emotions
We all experience negative emotions. A household gadget stops working, or we are put on hold with incessant music while waiting for the customer service rep to answer. Giving in to lasting negative emotions — anxiety, anger, etc., produce a toxic response in one’s body. We’ve long heard about “stress hormones.” Living with cancer takes these to a whole new level. We worry for weeks about the next scan, or how we’ll respond to a new drug or treatment. There is no magic bullet to eliminating negative emotions. It may be a therapist who specializes in helping cancer patients. It may be a conscious effort to push out negative emotions when you recognize they are overtaking your every thought. It may be to be more selective in who you engage with (family members, friends). It may be a little aerobic exercise (if you’re physically able). The first step is simply to recognize that it’s time to shift your thinking and get out of your own negative thinking.
5) Find contentment and gratitude in the smallest things
I was always a planner, looking ahead to the next event, or activity, or deadline on my calendar. Since getting cancer, I tend to focus on today. There’s been a lot of focus on mindfulness and there’s no better time to focus on living in the moment than when you have a cancer diagnosis. It’s easier to find contentment in the here and now. Like my friend Dara Kurtz recommends, try keeping a daily gratitude journal. When I speak with chemo patients, we talk about what’s going well in their lives. They tell me about their family members who live nearby, and I respond by saying to them what a blessing that it is to have family in the area. They tell me they just got their appetite back and are eating again, and I respond by telling them that it’s a good sign that they can eat and fill their body with nutritious food. If it’s a sunny day and they’re in one of the chemo bays that has a window, we talk about enjoying a pretty day. Of course, there may be more momentous things in their lives for which they are grateful, but everyone’s life is different, some more challenging than others, so I try to help them focus on the small things.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?
Remember that song from the early 1970s, “If I Could Teach the World to Sing” (…in Perfect Harmony”)
I’d love to see more people sing — not just those who have perfect pitch and sing in their church or local chorus or choir. Singing is one of the healthiest things we can do, not just for ourselves but also for others. I’ve never thought about inspiring a movement to bring good to the world, but music would certainly be the basis for such a project. One of the songs I play at the cancer center is “That’s What Friends Are For” © 1982, by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. When I first saw Dionne Warwick, Elton John, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and so many others come together to sing that song as a charity single for AIDS research and prevention, I was really moved. Music can bring hope and healing to many people.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
Today, my world is my own local community. It’s small enough that I do feel I can be an influencer and make an impact. So if I could have a private breakfast or lunch with a prominent person from business, I’d say Carl Amato, CEO of Novant Health. Because I’m passionate about the remarkable care and expertise I’ve received, and I want to figure out how to share music to improve not only Novant Health’s patient experience but also every team member’s workday.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!