Childhood cancer survivor takes it day by day

Elizabeth Zilka, 25, of Little Falls was 18 months old when she was first diagnosed with Wilms Tumor in October 1994 — a form of kidney cancer.

“It scared the hell out of me,” said Zilka’s mom, Vicky Johnson.

Most of the cancer was removed with surgery, followed by radiation and chemotherapy.

Nearly two months after Zilka was diagnosed, she was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) at a children’s hospital in Minneapolis.

“She was in the ICU for a whole week. I didn’t expect for her to live at all. It was the most terrifying time in my life,” Johnson said.

Elizabeth Zilka was only 18 months old when she was first diagnosed with Wilms Tumor, a form of kidney cancer. She will speak Friday, at the Relay for Life in Little Falls, to share her journey and how she copes with the emotional and physical scars.

Not long after Zilka’s ICU stay, Johnson went to the University of Minnesota Medical Center for a second opinion.

“The doctors at the other hospital just wouldn’t explain exactly what was going on,” Johnson said.

Once Zilka had been examined at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, the doctors discovered that Zilka’s liver had been severely damaged because of chemotherapy and radiation. As a result, Zilka had to wait six months until she was strong enough to handle another treatment at half dosage.

All seemed to be well until Zilka was re-diagnosed with Wilms Tumor when she was 5.

“The doctors told us a little piece had been missed in the surgery and that it re-grew,” Johnson said.

After more surgeries, and chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she was given the option to complete one more treatment. However, there was a high chance she would die from it, Johnson said.

“She became very sick from the treatment she had six months before,” Johnson said.

Johnson gave her daughter, then 8 years old, the choice to either go through another treatment or go home.

“I explained to her what was going on and the risks. But she told me she wanted to go home because if she was going to die, she wanted to die being surrounded by her brothers and sisters,” Johnson said.

Since then, the journey for Zilka has not only been to survive the cancer, but the emotional and physical scars it left behind.

“I used to not want people to know that I had cancer. I was embarrassed,” Zilka said.

But when she was about 10, she joined a cancer survivor support group. It helped her tremendously to speak with others who could truly relate to her thoughts and fears.

Even though the cancer has not returned since 1997, Zilka battles the fear that it will come back, daily.

“I just deal with it day by day. I also get reassured from my loved ones that if it ever comes back, they will be there to support me,” Zilka said.

When Zilka went in for a checkup to confirm that the cancer had not returned, she was told by the doctor that it was highly likely that she would never be able to conceive.

It is something Zilka grieves, but also accepts.

“If I can’t have my own children, I could adopt,” she said.

Meanwhile, Zilka enjoys life with her husband, Jeff Zilka, and their two dogs, Bella and Athena.

Zilka will speak about her journey and how she copes with the scars at the Morrison County Relay for Life event at the Morrison County Fairgrounds in Little Falls, Friday.

Registration for the survivor dinner starts at 5 p.m. with dinner served at 5:30 p.m.

The opening ceremony begins at 7 p.m. Manager of same day services director Brenda Spoden, who works at CHI St. Gabriel’s Hospital will speak about the services that are available at the hospital. The event is followed by the 5K glow walk/run at 8:15 p.m.

The luminaria ceremony will be held at 10 p.m. with Zilka as the event’s keynote speaker.

The silent auction will be open from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

For more information about the Relay, call (320) 632-1513.