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Cancer Chronic Illness

Chronic Illness When You’re Twins

Through cancer and celiac disease, these twins helped each other through their diagnoses.

Growing up, Robin Melamed and Tara Liebnick, now 45, were typical twins. They shared the same group of friends and more often than not, they completed each other’s sentences. In college, they joined the same sorority. Then, in their thirties and within a matter of months, the twins got the news—they both had cancer.

Facing a double mastectomy, they mulled over a procedure to rebuild their breasts. Melamed, who panics when she reads about health-related topics online, depended on Liebnick’s research to decide. During Liebnick’s chemo, Melamed flew to Dallas to help out and cheered on her nephew at his soccer games. Through hysterectomies, chemotherapy and lengthy hospital stays, the twins found solace in their relationship that’s like no other.

They’re not alone. Many twins with chronic illness have found that navigating their condition together has both grounded them and lifted them up.

Robin Melamed and Tara Liebnick are twins who navigated cancer diagnoses at the same time.

Cancer When You’re Twins

“What’s made it easier is having each other,” said Melamed, who lives in Houston. “It’s helpful we’re so much alike. We know how to be there for each other. We know what to say and what not to say. Going through this together has strengthened our relationship.”

Liebnick was the first to find out. She felt a lump in her breast. Cancer, her doctor said. Then, she tested positive for the BRCA1 gene mutation, which put her at a high risk for having both breast and ovarian cancer. Melamed was browsing the racks at Nordstrom’s in Houston when their dad called and broke the news about her sister’s diagnosis. She was devastated.

“It was a very scary time,” Melamed said. She also knew that if Tara had tested positive for the mutation, she would too. “I thought, fine, I’ll have preventative surgeries. At the time, it wasn’t on my mind I’d be dealing with cancer first-hand.” Melamed, who didn’t have any symptoms, still decided to have both breasts and her uterus removed. That’s when they discovered she too had cancer, in her abdomen.

“I don’t know how I would have gotten through [cancer] without her…”

As the months progressed, the sisters spoke multiple times a day and late into the night after their kids went to bed, on the phone, by text and over email. When Melamed had surgery to remove the cancer in her abdomen, then got an infection, Liebnick flew to Houston. She slept on a pull-out couch in Melamed’s hospital room for nine nights.

As Melamed lay there, moving in and out of consciousness, Liebnick knew how to bring a smile to her twin’s face. She played the Hamilton soundtrack for her on her phone and wheeled Melamed outside to get fresh air.

“I don’t know how I would have gotten through that without her,” Melamed said. When Melamed finally came home, she recovered in a rented recliner chair. The suggestion had come from her sister, who’d rented one after chemo.

Fraternal twins Jamie Serrano and Zach Friedlander were both diagnosed with celiac disease around the same time. 

Celiac When You’re Fraternal

Fraternal twins Jamie Serrano and Zach Friedlander, 29, have supported each other through chronic illness as well. The twins always had diverging interests. Serrano is more of a book worm; Friedlander was the physical twin. Having celiac disease has given them something to bond over.

Serrano was the first to get diagnosed. She was 16, volunteering in rural Mexico for the summer and wasn’t feeling quite right. Her stomach was off, but she assumed she had a virus or traveler’s diarrhea. She stuck to bland foods like flour tortillas and made do. Back in the U.S., doctors ran a blood test. It was positive for celiac. “An endoscopy showed my intestines were demolished,” she said.

Serrano changed her diet, cut out gluten and focused on fruits, vegetables and proteins. She learned to navigate eating out—which restaurants were safe, what questions to ask to make sure she didn’t get “glutened.” She studied food labels and learned where hidden gluten can lurk.

Friedlander got tested at the time too, even though he had no symptoms. But, he was negative for celiac. So, he forged on, enjoying beers and burgers during his college years and indulging during regular visits to Taco Bell. Then, a few years ago he noticed he was getting light-headed and dizzy. He was anemic. It was celiac.

“It’s given us something to bond over.”

Soon after, Serrano went in for a regular endoscopy to check her intestines. Her brother set one up for the same day. Afterwards it was clear; they both had celiac. As nurses pushed them into the waiting room in wheelchairs, Friedlander told Serrano he wanted to have one last gluten-filled hurrah. Pizza, burgers, beer, cookies and cake. Serrano set him straight.

“She said ‘no you can’t do that,’” Friedlander said. “She told me stories about people who don’t follow the diet, what can happen to them.”

From then on, Serrano has served as her brother’s guide, facilitating his way into the world of gluten-free eating. After his diagnosis, Friedlander regularly snapped photos of food labels and texted them to his sister to screen for gluten. When he moved back home to Chicago from Indiana, she showed him the best gluten-free friendly restaurants, and at grocery stores, pointed out the tastiest gluten-free cookies and crackers.

“It’s given us something to bond over,” Serrano says. “I’ve helped him navigate everything, and we enjoy sharing gluten free food together.”

The twins talk more today than they did in the past, Friedlander said. “It’s been a big help having her,” he said, “and I know she’s enjoyed helping me and having someone who can relate to her. We talk more now. We’re more open and we’re closer because of it.”

Immune & Autoimmune Diseases

The Health Coach Who Refused To Be Wounded

After years of suffering from Hashimoto's Disease, Celiac, and depression, Allie Stark wondered what would happen if she stopped identifying as a sick person. It changed her life.

Allie Stark says “fuck” a lot. She’s honest as all hell, unapologetic, and sugar coats nothing. You’ll thank her later. 

A testament to this? Her clients keep coming back.

Allie runs a booming wellness business. She’s a health and nutrition coach, a wellness consultant, and a yoga instructor. She coaches one-on-one with private clients, specializing in clients with chronic illnesses. She also facilitates large group therapy workshops, and gives workshops and talks in organizations.

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Allie Stark.

Before you start rolling your eyes about Silicon Valley’s commodification of Buddhism and all things woowoo, that’s not Allie’s style, and it’s not what she’s peddling.  

“I’m getting more and more curt with people I work with about I’m-not-gonna-do-the-work-for-you. If you want a cheerleader, I’m not the right person,” she says with genuine impatience in her voice. “I’m being a hard ass because I fucking hate working with clients that expect me to fix their problems. That’s not truth. That doesn’t happen in life.”

In Allie’s view, our societal structure is based on extrinsic factors being cures. She believes that people become unhappy because they can’t ever get what they need from the outside. But she knows from experience that healing is work that one must do on and for oneself. As she pointed out, “most healers are wounded healers, which is why they get into their work.”

Most healers are wounded healers, which is why they get into their work.

Allie was “always kind of a sick kid,” constantly on antibiotics and feeling lousy. She got really sick in her late teens. She developed severe psoriasis but was able to get it under control. Later, at 22, she lost her voice for “a really long time.” She was achy, swollen, fatigued, and had digestive issues. It was a massive autoimmune flare up. She “never felt good, ever.” When she was 24 she was diagnosed with Celiac and stopped eating wheat. She felt better for a few months, then got super sick again. Finally she was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease which causes the immune system to attack the thyroid. She was overmedicated by a factor of 300%, then had to go through a process of being weaned off the drugs, which entailed another year of “feeling really crappy.” It made her “incredibly anal” about her diet. She took a “ridiculous amount of supplements,” and started getting acupuncture.

They weren’t her best years but they did set her on the path that would eventually become her entire mission in life. Being sick made Allie interested in health.

“There’s basically two worlds,” Allie explains. “The sick world and the healthy world. When you live in the healthy world, the sick world is not even a reality, and when you’re living in the sick world, you just want to get into the healthy world.” She started teaching yoga at age 17. After college she was private cheffing for people with food allergies. She went into a masters program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in integrative health.

There’s basically two worlds: the sick world, and the healthy world. When you live in the healthy world, the sick world is not even a reality…

But despite her work, she was still sick and often depressed. “I used to get sick like five times a year between ten and fourteen days every time. It was like a quarter of my years I was sick.”

Until one morning during grad school: “I just remember waking up and wondering why I called myself a sick person.” This was the beginning of her transformation. “Nothing was working,” she explains, “so why not just try to change the story and see what unfolded from there?” She had studied how much mental health plays a role in physical health it finally occurred to her it might be time to shift the narrative for her own life too. She had literally tried everything else.

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Allie Stark.

“When you’ve exhausted everything else you can do, and you’re stripped down to your soul, and you’re wondering how to get through [life] moment-to-moment,” she explains, “the only thing left to do is to go really deep inside of yourself.”

So she called her mom and dad and brother and wrote emails to five close friends. She wrote that she knew she had identified as a sick person in the past. She no longer wanted being sick to be her story. Allie asked that if they ever hear her talking about herself that way, that they call her out. She asked for their help in breaking the pattern. “I wanted to think of myself as a happy, healthy person,” Allie says. It wasn’t just about her physical ailments. She had also identified herself as a person who suffered from depression and decided to reject that narrative too.

I just remember waking up and wondering why I called myself a sick person…

It worked quite remarkably. Looking at Allie now, she is the image of health. She is full of life and energy and has clear, glowing skin and the body of, well, a yoga teacher.  “I wake up like four times a year and feel depressed for two days,” she explains, “but, like, welcome to being a fucking human being. I don’t have long drawn-out weeks, months of depression anymore.” She also hasn’t gotten really sick in over a year, “which is fucking crazy.” Allie was able to markedly improve her health and happiness through the stubborn, searching work of changing her narrative. And that—among many other things—is what she tries to help her clients do.  

Allie finished her graduate studies three years ago and began with some coaching work at the San Francisco Department of Public Health as a program coordinator for a service that offered free chiropractors and acupuncture. She also taught yoga while she slowly started to build a coaching practice. “I’ve always had like seventeen jobs,” she states.  She worked for a period with a partner to create an integrative health program.

She then rebranded and went after the chronic health issue niche market. She partnered with two naturopath doctors who are her main referral system with clients. She started giving onsite talks and workshops. Fast forward through a few years of hustling, and here’s Allie now, still with seventeen jobs running it all as one impressive business out of her impeccably decorated Oakland apartment office.

Why are we all trying to be normal and not optimal?

She recently designed and conducted a one-month program she called Human Flourishing. “Why are we all trying to be normal and not optimal?”  This is what sets Allie’s philosophy apart from a lot of the current Silicon Valley mindfulness and wellness discourse.

“Mediocrity is fine rather than excellence,” she goes on, challenging the currently ubiquitous cult-of-productivity, “not perfectionism, but feeling like an optimal human being, being on you’re a-game which gets confused with being productive.”  Allie sees it as more complicated, more about “how you’re being in the world and does that feel optimal?”

Allie wants to write a book one day. She wants to do more public speaking and large group facilitating and have a small private practice on the side. But she knows that it’s all going to take time. “With some of the most successful people, what falls away the quickest is self care. I refuse to negotiate on that, so my goals may take me longer. I’m ok with that.”