With shiny, long blonde hair and a seemingly blessed life, Ali Weitz was a golden girl. At 30, she lived in the tony suburb of Bloomfield Hills, MI, happily married to a young man to whom she was introduced by his mother and hers. She and Andrew, her husband of 4 years, had an adorable baby boy, Wyatt. Ali and Andrew were ready to get pregnant again.
When Ali was 1, her sister Amanda, 15, died of leukemia. Ali says, “Even though I really didn’t get the chance to know Amanda, I grew up with an intuitive drive to make it all count.”
Earlier, Ali had felt a lump in her breast. A doctor had performed a biopsy and lumpectomy but was “confident” it was benign. No one in her family had a history of breast cancer or of the BRCA jean. So Ali wasn’t worried.
Wyatt was about to turn 2. Ali was busy arranging playdates and checking off lists, planning a future nursery and “focusing on the ‘normal’ things 30 year old women think about.” She sat holding her cell phone scrolling through Pinterest for ideas on Mickey Mouse themed parties.
On September 9, 2015, the phone rang. Breast cancer.
Ali says, “My life came to a screeching halt.”
Thus began what Ali calls her “life altering journey.” She discovered what we who’ve faced a similar challenge discover: the first days of uncertainty are torture.
Suddenly Ali found herself meeting with surgeons and specialists. Dr. Jeffrey Margolis, a respected oncologist at Royal Oak’s Beaumont Hospital, became Ali’s “quarterback.” She says, “My cheer leading squad of loving family and friends put me in touch with the best of the best. I was used to planning out everything. I needed a plan.”
Her team developed that plan. Step 1: Immediate fertility treatment before chemo disrupted her reproductive system. Step 2: Double mastectomy. Step 3: 6 aggressive chemo treatments. “It would be a tough year,” Ali says. “But at least we had a plan.”
Ali shared her story of survival with members of Detroit’s Temple Beth El on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. My heart ached for her. She was so young. When I faced my cancer battle, I was twice her age. And I thought I was young.
Cancer has no respect for age.
While initiating her plan, 3 years to the very day she spoke at Temple Beth El, Ali received a another call. Her fertility specialist, doing blood work to prepare for Ali’s egg retrieval, discovered his patient was 4 weeks pregnant. “I was already mourning the loss of my so-called perfect life,” Ali says. “I felt robbed of my innocence, and now I’d have to lose my baby and face the reality I might never carry a baby again. I didn’t think life could get any worse. But I put a smile on my face that night and suffered in secret.”
Ali’s pregnancy was terminated. A double mastectomy followed. 3 days later, still hooked up to drains, Ali was wheeled into the fertility office to complete the egg retrieval for which she’d prepared.
Before starting chemo, this determined young woman flew to California for her sister-in-law Jamie’s wedding. “While I was in pain, insecure and terrified, the thought of missing an event we’d planned for months made me sadder than staying home in the comfort of my post-surgery chair.”
Ali put on a pretty dress and walked down the aisle. “I was scared, insecure, uncomfortable and half the person I thought I was. To this day, when I look at photographs from that night, I don’t know how I did it. I’m proud of the woman who found the strength to walk down that aisle with her head held high and celebrate the good.”
Ali returned home “to a cold, dark winter with nothing to look forward to.” She had a port implanted in her left arm and underwent 6 rounds of chemo. Her mom, her “head cheerleader,” encouraged her to wear a cool cap during chemo treatments. “With all the physical changes my body was going through, she thought keeping my hair would help me feel more like myself,” Ali said. (According to the ACS, cooling constricts blood vessels in the scalp, minimizing the toxic chemicals that penetrate hair follicles. The cap stays on for 12 hours.) Ali remained a beautiful blonde throughout.
“For me, the worst part of the ordeal was being so disconnected. The fast-paced world was moving past me. I had to put my life on pause for a year.”
Ali discovered the remarkable concern of others. “People I barely knew stepped up to help. My friends organized dinners. One drove Wyatt to school every day. Close friends took me to chemo. When the going gets tough, you learn who’s there for you. On my last chemo treatment, many friends and family members stopped by to keep me company and cheer me on to the finish line. While everyone applauded as the 12 hour chemo and cold cap process ended, I burst into tears.
“The hardest part was just beginning. I felt lost. I didn’t know who I was or how to become the person I used to be. For the first few months post-chemo, I was too depressed to even respond to text messages or attend social gatherings. I had ‘survivor’s guilt,’ having gotten to know many others suffering from cancers for which there was no cure.” (Ali’s was HER2 + stage 1.) One of those others was her dear friend Lindsay Finsilver, her “pillar of strength and light,” who since died.
After a few months, Ali says, “I was ready to find the old me. The problem was I couldn’t just resume life as that person. I had to apply the old me to my new self.”
Ali spent time working at Steve’s (her mother’s deli and Burton’s and my go-to for corned beef sandwiches). A few months later, she began “making up for time I’d missed and being Wyatt’s mom.” As she continued to feel better, she started helping others who’d been diagnosed, encouraging them to wear cool caps.
“Counseling others, I began finding the gift in my experience. Being a source of strength for others, letting them know I walked in their shoes, I found a new version of myself and my purpose. While I still like to plan, I realize things don’t always work out as planned, and that’s okay, too.
“Today, 3 years after I received the second worst phone call of my life, I am here, proud to say I somehow got my fast-paced life back. But I make an effort to slow down and appreciate the little things.”
The day Ali spoke, 3 of those little things waited for her in the foyer: her rambunctious son, Wyatt, and 2 rosy-cheeked infants, swathed in pink in a double stroller. Lolita Amelia is named for Ali’s friend Lindsay and sister Amanda; Simone Faye, for Ali and Andrew’s grandmothers. The couple’s biological twins were born with the help of a gestational carrier.
When Ali finished speaking, Rabbi Mark Miller joined her. He marveled that throughout her trials, she’d managed to smile on. Ali said, “I tried to keep my worries somewhat private but to show up for others with a smile on my face.” Ali wears a smiley face gold ring, a gift from a dear family friend. When she was being wheeled in for surgery, a nurse asked her to take off the ring. “I can’t,” she said. And didn’t.
Brava, Ali, for your courage and compassion. Thanks for sharing such a powerful story. Smile on.