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 to conquer the fear of your own body, one step at a time.
I stood at the base of the Spanish Steps in Rome and took in the magnificent sight; the steep incline that branched off into two winding flights of steps before culminating at the base of a Church was breathtaking. To my left, crowds of tourists gathered in front of designer storefronts taking photos. My 7-year-old daughter tugged at my sleeve and I tore my eyes away from the steps to glance down in her direction.
"Now what, Mommy?" she asked.
We had been walking for a couple of hours already and I could tell she was tired; I was exhausted. Hours earlier, we started at the market of Campo di Fiori where we picked through ripe black olives, vibrant rhubarb and stacks of artichokes. We visited the four rivers fountain and the Christmas market at Piazza Navona, walking around the base of the fountain to identify the regions represented by each statue and then through cobblestone streets towards the Pantheon. The ancient structure was awe inspiring and overwhelming; we spent time gazing through the circular opening in the ceiling and tried to find the little holes in the ground designed to drain water when it rained. We strode past Parliament where we side stepped a demonstration, then joined the throngs of people taking photos and falling in love at Trevi Fountain, before finally making it to the Spanish Steps. It was the final stop of our morning walking tour of Rome and the culmination of our first family vacation since I finished cancer treatment.
"Now, sweetheart," I replied. "We climb."
My husband hoisted our 5-year-old onto his shoulders and with our eldest daughter leading the way, began climbing the 138 steps. Our 7-year-old daughter opted to stay with me. I told her we would make it to the top, but we would be going at a much slower pace.
It has been eight months post treatment for stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and I'm still not back to full strength. But as soon as I finished chemo and received my NED (no evidence of disease), I planned this holiday trip to Rome for the family. We needed a getaway — an opportunity to make memories that wouldn't erase the holiday a year earlier spent isolated in my home and away from all family and friends due to chemo side effects, but would rather be the first of what I prayed would be many happy holiday moments to come. With the financial help of my parents, we were able to make our Roman holiday a reality.
For months leading up to the trip, I worried about my physical state. Would I be able to spend three days on walking tours through Vatican City, Ancient Rome and the Jewish Ghetto? We chose to stay at an Airbnb in Trastevere, which was a tram ride away from all of the tourist destinations. Traveling on buses and trams would be extra wear and tear on my body. But I was determined to make this trip, to get the most out of every day, to arrive back at the apartment exhausted but elated by the historic sights and scenes we would experience each and every day.
As the trip got closer, I fought that fear in the pit of my stomach on a daily basis. The worry that I would be leaving my doctor at Shaare Tzedek Medical Center for the very first time, that we'd be hours away from our entire support system in a foreign country where we don't speak the language or know anyone. The fear that I wouldn't physically be able to spend hours on my feet, and that we would miss out on taking in all of the sights we had wanted to see because I was too weak.
Standing at the base of the Spanish Steps, after three full days of walking and touring and enjoying all that we could in Rome, I was ready to conquer the fear of my own body. With my daughter's hand in mine, we began to climb. I made it through the first flight of steps a little winded and took a moment to catch my breath as my daughter chattered excitedly away at my side. We chose the angled steps on the right and continued the climb while my daughter kept count, determined to confirm that there really were 138 steps as written in our guidebook.
My thighs began to burn, and I felt the fatigue in my lower limbs; my husband and other children were already at the top of the steps taking in the magnificent scenery of Rome. Until that moment, I kept my head down as I concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other. Glancing up, I caught the eye of an elderly woman walking down the steps with her family. As my daughter encouraged me to keep going, that I was almost at the top, the woman smiled at me.
I wondered if it was a pity smile, the kind fit people give to overweight and out-of-shape people they see sweating it out at the gym. There was no way she could have known about my personal challenges and struggles, the cancer battle I had fought and won months earlier, the tremendous accomplishment it was for me to make it to the top of 138 steps.
I smiled back as we past each other on the steps, heading in different directions, until I finally got to the top. My husband greeted me with a grin and a huge hug, and I felt emotional as I observed the skyline of Rome. I looked back down the Spanish Steps to the people gathered at the base below, to the start of my small but significant trek.
Reflecting on my cancer journey, through months of difficult treatment and post-cancer rehabilitation, I turned to my husband and children and said the words I'd been waiting to say for more than a year.
"I've made it."