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Verda Salberg: “Every Day is a Gift!”

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There’s nothing funny about having cancer, but breast cancer survivor Verda Salberg uses humor to help get her through it. She’s known for her vivacious laugh and sunny disposition, and so her coworkers at KCTV5 created a Laugh Jar, filled with their best one-liners, jokes and riddles to put a smile on her face.

“They decorated a jar and filled it with pieces of paper, each one with things to keep me smiling,” noted the 46-year-old sales representative from Overland Park, Kansas. “I just enjoy laughing so much, and somehow they came up with this idea. It’s little things like this that show how much they care; it meant the world to me. My family and friends say my attitude is so positive, and it keeps me fighting and encourages others.”

Verda is in great need of something to lighten her spirit. Even though there’s no family history and she tested negative for the BRCA gene, Verda is facing her second round in a battle against breast cancer. The discovery came a few months ago, but the initial diagnosis was made in 2008.

The Initial Fight
“My first diagnosis came in October 2008, when I was 38 years old. When I got the news, I remember crying and saying, ‘I don’t want to wear pink and be a member of the pink lady club!’ But it’s not about wearing pink,” she remembered. “I felt like I was faced with certain death. I didn’t realize the resources and the medicines available to fight it. Breast cancer can be beaten and managed thanks to research, much of it done right here in KC.”

Verda’s cancer results came back as Stage 2B, which means lymph node involvement. She had a tumor on her left breast and took a variety of medications and therapies to treat her type of cancer. Chemo was administered through a port for about six months. “I had treatment first to see how the tumor would be affected and then surgery, which is a little bit different,” she shared. “During the procedure, they took out all the nymph nodes visible on my left side, and I underwent a double mastectomy. The hope was that I wouldn’t have to deal with breast cancer again.”

In 2009, after nine months of treatment and surgery, Verda was declared cancer free. She spent the next years enjoying her family, husband, John, and daughters, 17-year-old Abigail and 14-year-old Lydia, both students at Olathe High School. She settled in at her job at KCTV5 after working her way through a variety of other media outlets. But then cancer dealt her a cruel setback. She was re-diagnosed in March 2016 at Stage 4 metastatic, meaning the cancer had spread to other organs in her body.

The Recurrence
Verda knew the battle that awaited her would not be an easy one. Her concerns were heightened by a nagging feeling of failure. “I’ve always been healthy and proactive with exercise and clean eating, and I had completed some nontraditional treatments to stay cancer free,” she recalled. “When I was re-diagnosed, I felt shameful. What did I do wrong and what could I have done differently? It was really hard. But now I know that this is part of the mourning process of the diagnosis. With the help of others, I’m getting over that feeling. My friends say I have an amazing attitude, and for me, laughter is essential to get through every day.”

Helping with her fight has been her family, especially John and her daughters. “The girls have been so supportive and John’s always been there for me, although sometimes I can be a bit headstrong and that causes problems,” she laughed. “At times, he wants me to stay home from work, but I want to go because I love my job and my coworkers. They’re an important support group and friend circle for me. Of course, John and I work it out. We always do.”

But in the beginning it was hard for Verda to accept help from others, and she realizes what a mistake it was. “Let people help. It allows them to go through the healing process with you. It blesses them and blesses you when you accept their help,” she shared. “And don’t wait for an answer of how you can help someone who has cancer. Just offer something. We had friends clean our house and bring us meals. Even though I’m not hungry because of my chemo, my family is hungry. When I was hospitalized, friends brought me fuzzy slippers, warm blankets and peppermints to take away the metallic flavor in my mouth from the chemo. It may not seem like much, but it meant the world to me.”

Treatment for her second round of breast cancer is going well. Verda is experiencing some impressive results with a new chemo medication called Xeloda. “My three tumors have decreased substantially. The one on my liver was the size of a baseball and now it’s a golf ball,” she stated. “Xeloda is a breakthrough drug; it wasn’t available when I had cancer the last time.”

Take a Proactive Stance
The roots of Verda’s second battle with breast cancer, she believes, can be traced back to October 2015, when lymphedema was found in her left arm. Lymphedema is a common affliction for women with breast cancer that can hinder the flow of the lymph nodes. This causes fluids to build up in the body, resulting in painful swelling.

“Lymphedema is a common side effect, but not for someone like me who was close to ten years of being cancer free,” she recalled. “We discovered a tumor blocking the lymph flow. But when I began noticing the symptoms, I should have demanded a scan to detect the lymphedema. I also should have asked for a second opinion. No doctor’s feelings should be hurt if you do ask for one. You have to be your own advocate, putting your health first.”

She also believes in seeking non-traditional ways to deal with the healing process. Verda says that many times physicians shy away from sharing this information or aren’t informed about those treatments. To fill that gap, Verda calls upon a group of friends who have also experienced breast cancer to share their experiences and what they have learned. “Some amazing people are thriving with cancer, so don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help,” she said. “I have a group of girlfriends–breast cancer survivors–and we share information and ideas. Having a network like this is absolutely priceless.”

She also advises that if you are going through cancer or any health issue, you must learn to be your own advocate. “Get second opinions and listen to your body. You know best if something’s not right,” she shared. “When your gut tells you something, do something. Most importantly, understand that you’re not being selfish.”

Reach Out
Not only does she surround herself with a solid network of friends, Verda is also a strong supporter of good causes such as Bra Couture KC. The nonprofit provides health services to uninsured and underinsured individuals in the greater Kansas City area who have been touched by cancer. To raise money, Bra Couture KC hosts an auction event showcasing eclectic, work-of-art bras modeled by breast cancer survivors to celebrate their triumph over cancer.

While her battle continues, Verda remains positive. Cancer cells will always remain in her body, but she believes that with the right treatment and care, she will live a long and healthy life. “I constantly remind my family that breast cancer can be just like any other chronic disease such as diabetes. You can live with it for many years,” she shared. “I always reinforce that with my family, especially with my youngest, because she’s afraid of losing her momma.”

Of course, some days are peaks and some days are valleys for Verda. During a recent family vacation, her sodium numbers dropped so low she wound up in ICU. But once again she pulled through, thanks to solid treatment and loving family and friends. Both were reinforced with Verda’s positive outlook on life, helped along by reaching into her Laugh Jar and pulling out a joke or two to bring back a smile.

“Not everyone can take your having cancer, and sometimes I encourage and reassure them that everything will be fine,” Verda shared. “But I will get rid of these big tumors, and I’m going to run again. Breast cancer is not insurmountable; you can beat it. I just say make the most of every day because every day is a gift.” ■