Surprise Cancer Diagnosis Leads TV Anchor to “Pay It Forward”

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Leisa Zigman rings the ceremonial bell to mark the end of her treatments at the Siteman Cancer Center. Photo by Suzy Gorman

May 13, 2011 – When Leisa Zigman participated in a first-year cycling event called Pedal the Cause in 2010, she approached it like one of the many charity events she takes part in – an appearance to help raise money for a good cause. In this case, the cause was cancer research.

However, events that would transpire over the weeks that followed not only changed the KSDK-TV anchor’s life. They also made the 2011 Pedal the Cause event the focal point in her efforts to “pay it forward.”

 Video Icon SM Watch: Zigman announces the formation of her Pedal the Cause team 

 


“Two years ago, I found a lump on my groin,” Zigman says. “I always had been pretty proactive about my health, including routine physicals and blood work, but it got bigger and bigger. In October, I was working out with my trainer, and she yelled at me for an hour saying, ‘You better get it looked at.’”

Concerned but still thinking the lump was nothing to truly worry about, she was referred to Siteman Cancer Center physician David Mutch, MD, chief of gynecologic oncology at Washington University School of Medicine.

After some tests, she was delivered shocking news on Nov. 1, 2010. Despite feeling healthy, she was diagnosed with low-grade follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“I had election coverage the next day,” Zigman says. “I thought in my mind it was low-grade and a tiny follicle and they would zap it with radiation. I did not grasp the gravity of the cancer.”

On the day of her first appointment with Siteman oncologist Nancy Bartlett, MD, the reality of her situation began to dawn on Zigman. “A volunteer met me at the door to tell me where valet was and where the pharmacy was, and then I thought, ‘Does this mean I’m going to be here a lot?’” she says.

“That’s when I knew I was in for a pretty long journey. Still, I saw Dr. Bartlett and told her I thought they had made a mistake … and she held my hand and said, ‘You have cancer.’”

The news is a surprise to many KSDK viewers. Zigman stayed on the air throughout treatment without any noticeable physical changes, missing only a few days of work. The reason she was able to continue working is a new treatment protocol that did not exist a few years ago.

“That first day, Dr. Bartlett put me on a protocol that specifically targets cancer cells, leaving healthy cells unharmed,” Zigman says of the protocol, a combination of Rituxan and bendamustine, a chemotherapy drug that has fewer side effects than older treatments. “The miracle of this new drug combination allowed me to work through it, and it helped my family keep a relatively normal life.”

Ironically, if Zigman had started treatment when she first noticed her lump two years ago, the protocol she received would not have been available.

One benefit of the Rituxan/bendamustine treatment is that it did not cause Zigman to lose her hair. “I heard someone say, ‘I saw Leisa on TV, and her wig looks great,’” she says. “Not on this treatment. It’s my own hair.”

Treatment for Zigman ended April 11. Dozens of friends and family members gathered around her just outside of Siteman’s infusion center on the seventh floor of the Center Advanced Medicine on the Washington University Medical Center campus. With husband Michael Edlin, daughter Micaila, 15, and son Taylor, 12, at her side, Zigman rang a ceremonial bell to mark the end of cancer treatment.

However, before ringing the bell, Zigman took the time to announce something she wanted everyone to know – her interest in paying it forward through the Pedal the Cause cycling event she attended before she was diagnosed with cancer.

Pedal the Cause founder Bill Koman – also a lymphoma survivor – is a friend of Zigman’s with strong ties to the St. Louis corporate community. He modeled the cycling event after Boston’s Pan-Mass Challenge, which raises millions of dollars in one day for cancer research at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. He hopes to make Pedal the Cause a similar success.

“One year, this will be a $10 million one-day event,” Zigman says. “We’re only on the 10-yard line. If I can be part of the team that moves the ball forward, I will be part of a team making a significant difference.”

To that end, KSDK viewers will soon see news of “Team Leisa,” Zigman’s own Pedal the Cause team she wants to be the event’s largest.

“Moving forward, it is and will become – besides my family – a major focal point of my life,” Zigman says. “I hope that my role as a public figure can be used to raise awareness for a cause I care deeply about, and that’s helping to find a cure.”