A native New Yorker, Shira Kallus Zwebner is a communications consultant and writer living with her husband and three children in Jerusalem, Israel. Diagnosed in 2017 with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, she's fighting her cancer battle and blogging about the journey at hipstermomblog.com
How celebrity Jon Stewart championed a cause that brought answers to my cancer diagnosis.
Six thousand miles away from Ground Zero, I read a Buzzfeed article that popped up in my Facebook feed featuring well known celebrity comedian Jon Stewart. In my Jerusalem apartment this past June, I watched a YouTube video of Stewart lambasting members of Congress for being absent as other members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties listened to his appeal to pass a bill reauthorizing the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. The VCF as it's known, helps provide benefits and health care to 9/11 survivors for the next 70 years.
Until that article, I had never heard about the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, the VCF or the World Trade Center Health Program. My experiences with 9/11 are painful memories that I indulge once a year, when I allow myself to think about the horrors I witnessed. Like many Americans, I think about the victims, remember where I was that fateful day, and count my blessings that I was one of the lucky ones who bared witness to the terrorist attacks from the safety of my Rockefeller Center office.
The details of my experience on 9/11 are still so clear in my memory: the cloudless blue sky and crisp, fall air, getting to the office early to issue a press release, the sound of screaming when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower, running to Sixth Avenue to watch the North Tower crumble and fall, the silent mass of people covered in dust and debris walking over the Williamsburg Bridge, crunching memos and papers littering the Lower East Side streets as I made my way to my grandfather's store on Ludlow Street.
There's one spot on Grand Street and East Broadway where you could see the World Trade Center in all its glory. It was a beacon for me on my walks home from the F train on East Broadway and Canal Street. Sometimes, I used to just stop and take a minute to appreciate the grandeur of the buildings; to watch as one by one, lights flickered on in office windows once the sun began to set. On 9/11, those late night workers jumped out of those windows to escape the inferno inside.
I was stuck in my Grand Street apartment for days after the attacks; no traffic except for emergency vehicles and equipment were allowed South of Houston Street. I stayed awake for days watching CNN, the anguished faces of loved ones pleading for any information about family/friends who were in the Twin Towers etched into my brain. I remember the cloudy skies over Grand Street and the acrid smell that would linger in my neighborhood for months.
No one told us that the air was unsafe, no one evacuated us from our homes. And by the end of January 2002, I could no longer stay in a neighborhood that felt like a ghost town. I moved uptown to the Upper West Side where the air felt fresher and the sun didn't have to fight to shine through the haze and dust.
Like most people suddenly diagnosed with cancer, I needed to know why. Why me? How does a healthy 41-year-old woman suddenly get diagnosed with a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that's statistically prevalent amongst Caucasian men in their 70's? Before treatment, I indulged myself in trying to understand the why of my cancer diagnosis. But by the time I started treatment, I had to divert all of that attention away from the why and focus on beating my stage IV cancer.
Almost a year after I celebrated my first remission, Jon Stewart showed up in my feed and I started doing some research. My knowledge of 9/11 related cancers was minimal, I thought it affected first responders only. Then I read about the former students at Stuyvesant High School who had respiratory diseases, chronic heartburn and cancers. Through my research, I learned about 9/11 related cancers for survivors, a category that included residents living in both the 9/11 Exposure Zone and the NYC Disaster Area.
I stopped breathing when I clicked on the map of the 9/11 Exposure Zone, mentally tracing my daily steps through the area on my way to and from my subway stop that's located in the zone. I recognized other neighborhood spots that I would frequent, from a bodega where I would get my coffee to my grandfather's store, mere steps away from Canal Street.
I spent the summer researching, and discovered that many residents of the disaster area have been diagnosed with non-genetic related breast cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma 15 years after the attacks. There are so many other cases of 9/11 related cancers that it's overwhelming. I also spoke with experts and other residents who were diagnosed with 9/11 related cancers. After a couple of weeks, I decided to apply to the World Trade Center Health Program. I told myself that if I were accepted into the program, then I would finally have the answer to my why.
Last week, after submitting proof of residency and filling out the necessary forms, I was officially accepted into the program. As the anniversary of 9/11 looms, it's with great sadness that I have a new connection to the attacks of that day. I can no longer say that I was just a witness, today I am a 9/11 survivor.