In Parts One, Two, Three and Four of our interview with Colleen Zenk, the resilient and inspiring talent shared her early years as Barbara Ryan on AS THE WORLD TURNS, her experience working Larry Bryggman and Benjamin Hedrickson, as well as Barbara's resurrection under Hogan Sheffer. In this candid section, Colleen shares with us more of her personal struggles and hardships in recent years.
We Love Soaps: You have been so gracious and generous sharing your own personal fight with oral cancer.
Colleen Zenk: Frankly, I felt it was my responsibility. How can you go through a devastating disease that no one knows anything about, go through it, get healthy, and sit by and watch somebody else get sick that you might have been able to help?
I just feel it’s a social responsibility. So I made it my duty to get out there and talk as much as I can about oral cancer. The thing with oral cancer, and the reason so many people don’t know about it, is because there are not that many survivors. Poor Roger Ebert doesn’t talk anymore because he can’t, because his tongue is gone. The people that have survived often don’t want to talk about it because they are so disfigured that it’s hard to be in public. Roger Ebert I applaud. He’s written a cookbook even though he can’t taste anymore because he doesn’t have a tongue. I give him a lot of credit. This past week Michael Douglas went public. The head of the Oral Cancer Foundation sent me an email. They finally have a figure who big enough so people will stand up and take notice of this cancer. Michael Douglas has the same cancer I have. It’s the same cancer, in a slightly different location. He will be going through the same treatments I went through. They vary a little bit because I was able to have surgery and he opted not to. He’s being treated the same way Barbara was treated, with radiation first, to shrink the tumor. I think finally there will be a face for this cancer. I wish him all the best and hopes he keeps his positive outlook. That’s why my doctor asked me, “Are you a positive person or a negative person?” I pointed to myself and said, “I’m the positive one.” I pointed to my husband Mark and said, “He’s the negative one.” He said, “You need positive energy around you everywhere.”
We Love Soaps: One of my favorite books is called, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl.
Colleen Zenk: Yup. I read it over and over while going through all of this.
We Love Soaps: So much of the message of that book is about finding meaning in tragedy. It seems you have sought to find meaning and importance in everything you have gone through.
Colleen Zenk: I try to. [Pause] Because so much of what I’ve been going through doesn’t make sense to me. All you can do is accept it and find a way to get through it and find a way to learn from it and make your life better and your children’s lives better. A lot of what’s happened to me the last few years doesn’t make sense. And I don’t understand why I have been on the receiving end of a lot of great difficulty. I have always thought of myself as a good person. I have always thought of myself as a person who gives, and is not a taker. I have been given my share to deal with. They always say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Well when I finally come out on the other side of this I’m going to be the strongest fucking woman you’ve ever known. I’m not on the other side yet. I’m still deeply wounded....deeply wounded.
We Love Soaps: Do you ever fear you’re being punished?
Colleen Zenk: That thought crossed my mind when I was first diagnosed. Then I pushed it away. I said no, it’s not that. I don’t know what that would be. I’ve been a good mom, a good wife, a good worker, a good friend. So it’s not that. What I came up with was that I was meant to get the word out because there wasn’t somebody at the time who was capable of doing that in the oral cancer world. That’s why within days of my diagnosis I found the oral cancer website, and I found the phone number, and I called that phone number. I got a call back from the executive director Brian Hill who is a stage four survivor himself, ten years out. Talk about a warrior! He is unbelievable. He was really my own guiding light through all my surgery and my treatment and still is. He has been through his own difficulties which are enormous. Yet he is always the first to say, “You are the warrior, you are the hero.” You can check it out on the Oral Cancer Foundation's website.
We Love Soaps: What kind of feedback have you gotten about helping others?
Colleen Zenk: The feedback has been unbelievable. The last couple of months I’ve had so many emails from people that are going through it or who recently have been diagnosed, or women who’s husbands have been diagnosed. I have corresponded as much as I can with many of them, just offering whatever support I can. I do know there are a lot of people out there who have heard the word through one venue of another to get out there and get screened. And that’s what I’m meant to do. I feel good about it. I will tell you that I had a lot of resistance from certain members of my family about going public. But not anymore. A couple of my kids were not happy about it, they thought they would be ostracized in school. My kids are now proud of their mom, and that I made a little bit of an impact.
We Love Soaps: Many spiritual teachings instruct that we are here to learn and face hardships in order to continue to evolve.
Colleen Zenk: I haven’t gotten it figured out yet. There’s so much I’m sifting through right now. I’d like to know when this part of it is going to be over. I’d like to know when I’m going to get to the next phase when I can start smiling all the time again. I’m looking forward to that.
We Love Soaps: One thing I have learned from many of the actors of GUIDING LIGHT this past year is how painful losses and setbacks can often propel someone into new creative mediums they would not have explored otherwise. With that in mind I want to go back earlier in 2010 to a phone call and email I sent to you asking you to consider performing at our We Love Soaps Weekend. You simply rocked the house.
Colleen Zenk: You hunted me down. It propelled me to say, “I’ll put a toe in the water, I’ll get back on stage.” It was my first time back up on a cabaret stage in over 30 years. It really did force me to take a good hard look at what I like to do. And then by chance the great Don Rebic was there, who at the last minute jumped in and played me. And he’s now my musical director. I’m working with Don and with a fabulous director named Eric Michael Gillett on a one-woman show. I’m very excited about that. I just found out that something I thought was going to happen is now not going to happen. They passed on me for a show in town. But what that says to me is, “Okay, you’ve got to get your show together.” Now I have the time I can devote to a one-woman show and to get it up and running. We are hoping we will see it put together in late October or November.
We Love Soaps: I’m so happy to hear this! I saw at We Love Soaps weekend and in Summer Stock how something wonderful in you is awakened when you are on that stage. It is very exciting for an audience to experience that, and I’m pleased you’re sharing that audiences will soon more opportunities for this.
Colleen Zenk: You have been so supportive. I don’t think I would have had the guts to do it quite so soon. You really pushed me, and I’m really glad. And how glad I was someone didn’t show up [to play piano] and I ended up in the extraordinary fingers of Don Rebic.
We Love Soaps: Isn’t that another example of how sometimes the Universe has a funny little plan for us that turns out better than our own plan?
Colleen Zenk: Yes, a better plan. It’s a funny little world.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Press here for Part Six in which this divine talent talks about Barbara's romance with Henry, as well as important life lessons learned by portraying Barbara Ryan. Plus, how did she feel when other characters made pejorative comments about Barbara's age? Find out in Part Six.
CBS's "World" stops turning this week, but yours doesn't have to! Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist specializing in Grief/Loss work and is now taking new clients in New York City. He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve."