Leisa Zigman

Ughhh, that day!” Leisa Zigman groans when I ask her about Nov. 1, 2010. Her reaction kind of caught me by surprise. I guess I expected a well thought-out, clearly delivered, news-like response from KSDK’s Zigman. After all, she’s one of the classiest, most unflappable TV news reporters in St. Louis. But that was clearly a day she hates to re-live.

“That was the day when I received the call that I had follicular non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” she recalls. Zigman knew that meant she had cancer, but she didn’t think it sounded like a potential death sentence. As a matter of fact, she tells me that at first, she thought it was just going to mean a lot of inconvenience in her life. “I knew nothing about lymphoma. My impression was that this was a small, little molecule that they’ll take out or zap with radiation and I’ll move on,” she explains. “It wasn’t until a few days later—after I had done some research—that I realized I was in some trouble.”

When local news folks are faced with a serious illness, it often becomes a matter for public consumption. Recently, Roche Madden of Fox 2 fought (and won) a battle with colorectal cancer. I myself had a melanoma several years back during my radio days, and fortunately was able to share a happy ending with my listeners.

As much as you hope your own personal challenges will help raise awareness for causes and cures, you really just wish it wasn’t happening at all. For her part, Zigman attacked the problem head-on, just like it was a ‘sweeps’ series. Zigman, the chief investigative reporter at KSDK, used her skills to learn as much as she could about her disease. She tells me one of the first things she learned is that there really is no cure for this type of cancer. “They never use the word ‘cure’ with the type of cancer I have. What they aim to do is put you in remission and hope it stays that way as long as possible.”

The other important fact that Zigman discovered was that the leading expert in the world for this kind of cancer was in St. Louis: Dr. Nancy Bartlett of the Siteman Cancer Center. Zigman had been to Siteman before as a reporter. But now, she was there in Dr. Bartlett’s office as a patient.

“I looked at her and said, Are you sure that the lab was right? Because I feel great. She put her hands on my hands, looked in my eyes and said, You have stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. You have tumors in your chest, your neck, your stomach and your groin. You need to start treatment immediately.”

For the next six months, Zigman got steady doses of chemotherapy. Now, two years later, she still gets chemo treatments every three months. All during that time of intense treatment, she only missed a few days of work reporting and anchoring the news.

I remember watching her on TV and wondering how long she was going to be able to keep it up. But rather than making her life more stressful, being on the air gave Zigman something else to think about other than cancer. She received a lot of messages from viewers who were going through their own battles with cancer. Some of them told her that when they saw her on the news, it gave them extra encouragement. Others would say that if she could keep up the fight and still be on TV, they could keep on slugging it out, too.

Zigman’s own lead story now has a feel-good spin to it: The treatments have worked and she’s in full remission. She tells me she is focused on paying it forward by helping raise money for treatments and cures for all kinds of cancers. She’s pushing hard to promote Pedal the Cause, a cycling event in October to benefit Siteman Cancer Center and St. Louis Children’s Hospital (pedalthecause.org). Hopefully, the worst is behind her and she can take advantage of her newfound perspective on life.

Zigman thoughtfully responds when I ask her, How did that day change your life? “Oh, god, ummm. (Long pause). I think it causes you to reevaluate everything—the choices you’ve made in the past and the choices you make every day, how you live your life, what you want to do from that day forward, if, Godwilling, you go into remission or are cured—it changes everything.”

Zigman doesn’t worry as much about the future as she did before, but she is looking forward to doing her part to help beat the disease that has caused so much pain for so many people. “My hope is that the research we’re funding through Pedal the Cause will lead to more treatments and therapies for more cancer,” she says. “ My focus is to have a world without cancer and that it wouldn’t be an Ughhh, that day. Instead, it would be, Oh my God, what a great day!

Editor’s Note: Leisa Zigman is the recipient of this year’s Media Person of the Year award from the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis. She will be honored at an Oct. 4 gala at the St. Louis Ballpark Hilton (stlpressclub.org).

Native St. Louisan Paul Brown is a lifelong journalist, and previously served as a broadcaster for KMOX and KTRS radios and ABC 30. He also worked as a freelance producer for programs on the Speed TV network and as a media relations consultant specializing in political campaigns.