Justine Zahara: a journey of resilience

November 20, 2023

A new path forward

Justine Zahara was a young mom with a busy one-year-old daughter and a job she loved when her doctor noticed a lump on the left side of her neck. It was September 2021, the height of the pandemic. People were masked and fearful, and health procedures were stifled under the persistent threat of COVID-19. Still, Justine’s doctor managed to push through an ultrasound, and shortly after, a biopsy confirmed the unthinkable – the enlarged nodule was cancerous.

“I suppose everyone is shocked when they find out they have cancer, but I was really shocked! I didn’t have any other symptoms, and I was only 34! My mom had breast cancer 10 years ago at the age of 50, and luckily, she is doing okay, so I did have cancer on the radar, but this just felt so crazy.” said Justine.

Looking back now, Justine recalls her feelings of alarm, fear, and vulnerability, but she also notes the exact moment of clarity, when she knew that her ailing marriage would have to end, so she could put all her energy into surviving cancer.

“Getting cancer was the final straw for us. I knew I couldn’t go through cancer with the stressful situation going on at home – I would need to be surrounded by peace and support,” she said.

Hence, within a span of six months, Justine went through a cancer diagnosis, a marital separation that included a temporary move to a relative’s home, a medical leave from work, surgery, radiation, divorce mediation, and then a move to a more permanent apartment of her own.

“It was a lot. It was so scary figuring out my life going forward. All the surgeries were cancelled due to COVID, so it took a few months for me to get in after I was diagnosed. I had the very real fear that I could die waiting for surgery – or that it would spread – or something awful like that,” said Justine.

In January the surgery revealed that the cancer had indeed spread throughout her thyroid and to several lymph nodes. The surgery to remove all cancer went well, but a few days after surgery Justine had a rare reaction to the calcium, and along with vomiting and diarrhea, she awoke up in the night in a state of paralysis and had to take an ambulance to the hospital for a week-long stay to reset her parathyroid hormone levels. Fortunately, her mom had come from Saskatchewan and could care for care of her daughter Lily, who was then 20 months old.

“I was sharing a hospital room with a much older man and since it was COVID, few visitors were allowed, but he had his wife at his side the whole time with her mask on. I kept looking over and thinking that’s how it’s supposed to be – someone there at your side. I have a pretty strong work community in Edmonton, but not much outside of work – most of my family and friends are back in Saskatchewan. I felt so alone in those moments,” she said.

In the weeks that followed surgery, Justine and her husband negotiated a settlement and began sharing custody of Lily. In April Justine had the prescribed radioactive iodine treatment that would help reduce her chances of cancer reoccurrence. Then, beginning to feel herself again, but still of medical leave from her job in fundraising at the University of Alberta, Justine looked for ways to stay positive and engaged in life.

“I took some courses online through Athabasca University, knowing that learning would be good for my mental health. I have an MBA, but I just wanted to find ways to keep my mind busy, so I wasn’t thinking about cancer all the time,” she said. “I took psychology and an anatomy and physiology course which actually helped me understand more about my body and what I was going through.”

Wellspring on the horizon

It wasn’t until May 2023, during her last appointment at the Edmonton Cross Cancer Institute, that Justine learned about Wellspring.

“As soon as I got home, I went on the Wellspring website and signed up immediately. I wished I had known about it sooner. I joined Open Art – which I really love. I have an art background, but I hadn’t done any art for over a decade. Getting back to it has been amazing. I do this program at Edmonton House every week; being in a room with all of these wonderful people has given me the sense of community I was missing,” she said.

Justine also tried Wellspring’s drumming program, and she says she found it very therapeutic. She mentions that she generally doesn’t get overly emotional, but drumming brought her to tears, giving her a sense that she was releasing some things she needed to let go of.

“I went through this huge adjustment where I was wondering… who am I without my job? A lot of my focus and identity have been wrapped up in my work. If I’m not married, and I’m not at my job – who am I? It was a period of self-discovery and Wellspring really helped me get through this,” she said.

Now back at work and settled into a new routine, Justine says she still plans to lean into her Wellspring community and may even sign up for some young adult programs where she will connect with others who have had their life trajectory altered by cancer at a young age.

The gratitude surge

It’s been two years since diagnosis, and with cancer at bay, Justine is now on a six-month medical recall. She enjoys the change in her job to a home/office hybrid and is pleased with how she has now found her footing as a single mom, with interests outside of work.

“I have much better balance than I had before and I’m cultivating parts of myself that aren’t about work. This is really nice. Lily has adjusted well – we have a good relationship and she does well with her dad too, I think. And, I’ve developed friendships outside of work. Wellspring has offered me that – the sense of community I was missing,” she said.

Most importantly, Justine has reaped benefits from this health scare that have a profoundly changed her life perspectives.

“As soon as I realized I’m going to live, I thought now I get to rebuild my life, and I’m going to make it as good and happy as possible. It was a wake-up call – a second chance. Cancer totally changed me. Every day that I wake up feeling healthy I am immensely grateful. I don’t want to waste a single day,” she said.

Justine says she has made lots of lifestyle changes, and she isn’t sorry that this ‘wake-up call’ came early in her life.

“Cancer is out of my control, but I’m all about doing everything I can to stay healthy now. I exercise when I can, cut out alcohol, cook at home, and when I want to do something, I don’t put it off – I go do it! My time with Lily is more precious than ever. I feel so much more joy. I don’t have it all figured out – I’m still working on myself, but I know I’m going in the right direction, and I’m excited about my future!” she said.

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