In September, more than 300 people gathered to sing “Happy Birthday” to a woman who blew out the candles on a colorful cake.
Debra Zelman had turned 50.
According to the odds, Zelman shouldn’t have made it to 45.
Shortly after her 40th birthday, the Davie attorney and mother of three was diagnosed with Stage IV stomach cancer, a particularly nasty form of cancer that has an overall relative survival rate of 31 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. For Stage IV, the chances of being alive in five years is only 4 percent. Doctors told Zelman at 40 in 2008 that her Stage IV cancer was inoperable and incurable.
On Saturday morning, Zelman died at 50 in Plantation, where she was born and raised. But she did so much in the last decade of her life for others who face stomach cancer — not only locally but the world over. That 50th birthday party alone, which doubled as the third Annual Dream Big Luncheon, raised over $80,000 to fund stomach cancer research and benefit stomach cancer patients, said her friend Susie Bond, a former board member and communications chairperson for Debbie’s Dream Foundation.
In 2009, Zelman founded Debbie’s Dream Foundation as a collection of South Florida volunteers to help a friend or a neighbor create a stomach cancer community and to find a cure. That small foundation quickly grew into an international powerhouse, with 27 chapters in the United States and international chapters in Canada and Germany.
The foundation’s Patient Resource Education Program has supported and educated nearly 600 stomach cancer patients, their caregivers and family members from 38 states and 21 countries.
“During Debbie’s long struggle with stomach cancer, I never heard a negative or defeatist word from her,” said Madelyn Zelman, Debbie’s mother. “Her positive attitude and determination to fund research to find a cure and to help others fighting this deadly disease while undergoing her own treatment should be inspirational to all.”
She has helped thousands of others with her efforts.
Durée Ross, on her friend Debra Zelman.
The foundation’s Executive Director Andrea Eidelman said in a statement Saturday: “DDF has lost a visionary and an extraordinary spirit, and the world has lost an amazing human being. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to know and work with Debbie have lost a great role model and fierce leader. No words can adequately express our sadness at Debbie’s death or our gratitude for the opportunity to have worked with her. We will honor her memory by dedicating ourselves to continuing the work she loved so much.”
Zelman was determined to fight hard the minute doctors broke the news a decade ago. Her youngest daughter, Sarah, was only 3 at the time. She was worried Sarah, now 12, would be too young to even remember her. She wasn’t about to let her twins Rachel and Zachary, then on the cusp of their teens, go through those difficult teenager years without a mother’s guidance.
The twins are now 19.
“I cannot and will not picture my kids without a mother,” Zelman told the Herald in 2012. Those were her first thoughts, she said, as doctors finally figured out why the active mom with a thriving law practice had felt so puzzlingly weak and fatigued.
“I could either let this disease define who I was or I could fight for my life. Well, I’m a fighter,” Zelman said.
Zelman assembled a team of 31 medical experts to serve as the foundation’s Scientific and Medical Advisory Board. Since 2013, the foundation has awarded eight grants totaling $650,000 in funding to scientists across the country. The foundation is working on an additional grant that would bring that total to $700,000 in early 2018.
Every February, Zelman and her team traveled to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress for more stomach cancer research funding. Between fiscal years 2015 and 2016, the Department of Defense allocated about $12 million for stomach cancer research. For 2017, stomach cancer research received another $6 million.
On a Facebook post Saturday, CBS4 entertainment reporter Lisa Petrillo called Zelman “an amazing warrior.” Petrillo had served as an honorary chair of Debbie's Dream Foundation and emceed several of its galas over the years.
“Debbie was a true fighter and a hero to all those suffering with this terrible disease. … Rest in Peace Debbie. You fought so well,” Petrillo said.
Zelman’s survivors include her husband Dr. Andrew Guttman; her children Zachary, Rachel and Sarah Guttman; her parents Madelyn and Dr. Donald Zelman; and sisters Tammy Zelman Caress and Shari Zelman Sprague.