Dr. Laura Zelenak shares journey through breast cancer to spread hope
IMLAY CITY — When given he choice between laughing and crying at the curve balls life sometimes throws, Dr. Laura Zelenak’s choice is to yuk it up with gusto.
The busy physician-owner of Imlay City Family Practice and mother of three knows—from both experience and education—that the old adage is true: Laughter is indeed the best medicine.
As Breast Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close, Zelenak readily admits that finding humor in a breast cancer diagnosis 10 years ago was a bit of a challenge. She says her strong faith and family tradition helped her reach for a smile.
“I was raised by a family whose humor is off-color, sarcastic, and sometimes crude,” Zelenak says. “I married into a family that appreciates humor too…we were going to laugh ourselves right through it. I was also raised to believe that you can laugh or you can cry…and it’s much better to laugh.
“Even in the worst of times we hug, we cry, and most of all we laugh,” she continues, “because laughter is the best medicine.”
As for Zelenak’s faith in God—well, that helped too. Shortly before her diagnosis, synchronicity confirmed her belief.
“…God sent a wonderful friend my way,” Zelenak explains. “Kathy, a pharmaceutical rep, had brought lunch for my office and shared with me her breast cancer story. She said ‘I don’t know why I shared that,’ when she was done. It took a week or two before I knew why.”
On September 12, 2012, Zelenak underwent a bilateral mastectomy. Again, she felt that a higher power was at work, prepping her for what she was about to endure.
“I was in the best shape of my life…my husband and I had just finished doing a high intensity workout program (P90X) that included daily workouts for at least an hour. We would get up early in the morning to fit them in,” Zelenak says. “We did this for a full ninety days…I’ve never been an early riser and have never been able to get myself out of bed before I absolutely have to. But for some reason I had the motivation to do this. In retrospect I’m sure this came from God even though I didn’t know it at the time.”
With chemotherapy and radiation on the horizon, Zelenak was faced with the decision of what—if any—reconstructive surgery she would have, weighing the options, the pros and cons, and even the importance (or not) of having breasts.
“I knew that chemotherapy lowers your immune system and makes you more susceptible to infections,” she says. “I didn’t like the thought of putting something foreign in my body. I wasn’t sure what message it sent to my daughter if I felt the need for breasts. Aren’t they just a physical part of the body? They don’t make up the important parts of a woman. Her mind, her heart, her accomplishments—these are what should be important.”
After pondering these questions and more, Zelenak decided to go with a newer option, which included use of her own fat cells in the reconstruction process.
Whether it was her positive attitude, her excellent physical shape, the support from her family and friends, and finding humor through it all, Zelenak healed quickly from the surgery.
She still had a long road ahead—16 weeks of chemotherapy followed by 16 weeks of radiation.
She also had to get back to work at Imlay City Family Practice.
“I was thankful to have two other doctors in my practice to help shoulder the burden while I was busy with my own doctor’s visits,” Zelenak says.
In anticipation of hair loss caused by chemo, Zelenak had her hair cut short—and also took part in a “pre-chemo bash” with friends and family.
“We talked, we drank, and we enjoyed each other’s company,” she says.
Chemo and radiation visits required long trips to the infusion center—which her husband, Jeff, and her mom alternately drove her to.
“My chemo took a few hours to infuse,” Zelenak says. “I was glad to have Jeff or my mom for company.”
Unfortunately, the type of chemo Zelenak endured meant certain hair loss. Rather than fighting the inevitable, she decided to embrace it.
“I gave my 9-year-old son hair clippers and had him shave my head,” she says. “He got to participate in me becoming ‘GI Laura fighting breast cancer…you can laugh or you can cry, I chose to laugh.”
She still chose the later when confronted with her hairless image.
“Whenever I passed a mirror with my bald head I would laugh,” she says. “I felt like one of the Coneheads from the Saturday Night Live series that premiered in the ’70s.”
After trying colorful scarves to cover the baldness, Zelenak decided she’d rather try wearing a wig.
“I ended up with two cute wigs, one short haired and blonde, another long haired and brunette,” she says.
Zelenak liked the short blonde one, and decided that’s what she’d wear to work. With the new look came some small town speculation Zelenak adds.
“I heard crazy rumors such as ‘Dr. Zelenak is getting a divorce, just look at her new look,’” she says.
Still, practicing medicine in a small town brings an abundance of blessings—for which Zelenak is beyond grateful.
“When people go through trying times it seems like they say things like, ‘I was surprised by all the love and support I received.’ I experienced an outpouring of love and support but was not shocked by this,” she says. “I have loving, supportive family and friends. My patients and my work family are equally as kind and supportive. Everyone rallied around me to offer any assistance they could. All these people have a place in my heart and they showed me I have a place in theirs.”
Ten years later, Zelenak hasn’t let cancer get in the way of living life. In fact, she’s embraced some new adventures.
“I learned how to ride a motorcycle, gone skydiving, and had chickens for a while…because of course when you have breast cancer, you get a motorcycle and chickens.”
As for the lessons the ordeal has brought, Zelenak chooses to keep them simple.
“All I did was follow the advice of my trusted physicians and tried to live as healthy as I could,” she says. “I don’t feel that being 10 years cancer-free is an accomplishment. I did what I had to and tried to remain positive in the hard times.”
Most of all, Zelenak is grateful.
“I am thankful for that struggle; it gave me insight into what patients with cancer endure,” she says. “I choose not to dwell on the hardships involved…I will remember great friends like Kathy and laughing about the little time it takes to shower when you have no hair.
“I smile when I think of that time when all of my family members tried on my wigs and we took silly pictures and laughed and laughed,” Zelenak continues. “I’ll remember how much love and support I felt from absolutely everyone in my life.”
Editor’s note: Thank you to Dr. Laura Zelenak, D.O., who took the time to share her story in hopes that it will help others facing the same diagnosis.
Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.