Talking with KSDK’s Leisa Zigman about cancer and a cause

Surrounded by her daughter Micaila, husband Michael Edlin and son Taylor, Leisa Zigman rings the ceremonial bell at Siteman Cancer Center to mark the end of her treatments in April.

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Talking with KSDK’s Leisa Zigman about cancer and a cause

“Hearing the words ‘you have cancer’ was hard.  Saying the words, ‘Mommy has cancer,’ was the hardest part of this journey, so far,” says Leisa Zigman, veteran investigative news reporter and anchor at KSDK Channel 5.

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We recently met at her home in Clayton to talk about the 2nd annual Pedal the Cause, a biking event that raises money for research for targeted cancer treatments at Siteman Cancer Center and St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Pedal the Cause has become Zigman’s mission – her way of paying it forward. She is in remission from a low-grade follicular non-Hodgkin lymphoma after being diagnosed in November, 2010. She initially found a lump on her groin that at first didn’t worry doctors, but that grew over the course of two years.

Seated in the living room, she explains why Pedal the Cause has become so important to her. “We can’t rely on government funding.  It’s up to us to fund new life saving treatments and cures like the medicine working in me right now,” she says.

“It’s great that non-Hodgkin lymphoma now has a targeted therapy that just kills cancer cells.  But we need targeted treatments for all cancers.  That’s the focus of Pedal the Cause and why I’m so committed to this organization.”

Plan Leisa

Pedal the Cause takes place on Sunday, Oct. 2. But before getting into how you can take part, let’s go back to Zigman’s living room. Because it’s here, as she discusses her diagnosis and the aftermath, that it dawns on me how her investigatory skills, coupled with a need to confront her illness head on, propelled her to take charge of the situation. If only her grace, purposefulness and proactive approach could be channeled to help everyone facing a potentially life-altering disease.

To hear her tell it, she began with what comes naturally. “I first did research,” she says. “I called Dana Farber (Cancer Institute), MD Anderson (Cancer Center), NIH (National Institutes of Health) to find out who is the best. Everyone said why leave St. Louis when you have (oncologist) Nancy Bartlett there. She travels the world teaching other specialists. It was clear that with Siteman, we have a world-class facility with world-class doctors.”

The Friday before her chemotherapy was to start she gathered the troops – four close girlfriends – and as they sat on her living room couch, she handed them talking points. “They included facts about non-Hodgkin, how I would finish chemo in six months and then have two years of worth of maintenance. I also gave them a phone list of everyone I wanted them to call to tell about what was going on when my treatments started that Monday.”

She further explains: “It was important to me to control the message and the only way to control the message is to be out in front of the message. I didn’t want anyone to say something irresponsible to my children,” referring to her daughter Micaila Edlin, 15, and son Taylor Edlin, 12. She is married to Dr. Michael Edlin, a dentist in Clayton.

At the same time, Zigman also informed her KSDK boss and asked him to send letters to colleagues letting them know about her illness. She is effusive about the support she has received from the TV station including phone-a-thons it has sponsored to raise money for Pedal the Cause. She adds that viewers have been amazing in their support, kind words and contributions.

“I also sent out a message to my Facebook friends,” she says, “All 5,000 of them. As I was getting infused (with her chemotherapy drugs), I looked over at my Facebook messages and saw one after another saying, ‘I’m adding you to my prayer circle.'”

Before telling her children she sought the advice of a child psychiatrist who said, ‘Tell them Mommy is going to be fine. The best way to help Mommy is to do your homework, get good grades and just keep being the best person you can be.'”

Her daughter’s reaction was nonchalant but her son went to his guidance counselor the next day and told him, “It was the dumbest thing he ever heard in his life.”

The 48-year-old Zigman laughs. “His guidance counselor called and said Taylor needs to know when you are having a good day or a bad day because his stomach is in knots. As a result, I have been open with my kids about everything.”

Zigman explains that from the beginning, she was put on a protocol that specifically targets cancer cells leaving healthy cells unharmed. Interestingly, the protocol, a combination of Rituxan and bendamustine, a chemotherapy drug with fewer side effects than older treatments, wasn’t available when Zigman first noticed the lump in 2008. “Had I started treatment then, it would have been less effective and much more toxic,” she says.

When Zigman learned her diagnosis, she says she went to see her rabbi, Susan Talve, at Central Reform Congregation. “When you have this diagnosis or any life- changing diagnosis, I think you question if you did something wrong. Am I being punished?

“My faith had a lot to do with how I got through this. Rabbi Susan said we don’t believe in a vengeful, angry God. We believe in a loving, forgiving God. You did nothing wrong.”

Team Leisa

Zigman notes that Judaism teaches us to repair the world, tikkun olam. “We get to that path individually,” she says. “Whether your way is to repair the world through the arts or feeding the hungry, my path became very clear with my diagnosis and my way is Pedal the Cause, this grassroots upstart organization that is going to fund lifesaving treatments and cures.”

She credits Bill Koman, a two-time lymphoma survivor, with not only founding Pedal the Cause in 2009 but raising close to $1 million during the event’s first ride last year and recruiting Zigman to serve as MC. “He asked me in October and I was diagnosed in November,” she says, adding that the goal this year is to raise $2 million and within seven years, $10 million.

Pedal the Cause allows bike riders, either as a team or as an individual, to choose among several courses, ranging from 15 to 75 miles, and find sponsors to help them raise either $500 or $1,000, all of which stays in St. Louis to fund cancer research. Zigman is challenging riders to join Team Leisa and pledge to raise $500 as a member. For more details, go to Last year, more than 700 riders took part; this year Zigman is hopeful that number will more than double.

“Cancer is a giant reset button,” she says. “Pedal the Cause helps me be a part of something bigger than myself so I’m not thinking about cancer all the time . . . I am grateful for every second of the day.”