Redwood cancer survivor and her UCSF nurse pioneer a new therapy program

Isabella Roesler

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Spending a night in the hospital for the first time can be downright terrifying, especially following the emotional whirlwind of a cancer diagnosis. The only thing that could possibly make it worse is having a nurse’s full body weight pressing down as they push a long needle through the chest. In April of her sophomore year, senior Zoe Babikian was unexpectedly diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer that affects the production of white blood cells. As shocking as a cancer diagnosis is to receive, what can be even more challenging is facing the daunting treatment of chemotherapy. Babikian was fortunate to receive effective breathwork therapy from her nurse, Kate Danziger. Danziger recently resigned to pursue a long-awaited dream: launching a therapeutic program of breathwork and yoga for young cancer patients, their parents and hospital staff.

“The first night I was in the hospital, I was scared, I was nervous, I was in pain and I felt horrible. [Breathing techniques] really calmed me down and stopped my mind from spiraling,” Babikian said.

Photo by Bella Roesler
After enduring 12 rounds of chemotherapy, senior Zoe Babikian is helping her nurse bring a therapeutic program to UCSF Benioff hospital.

Babikian successfully finished her 12 rounds of chemo by Sep. 2018. Danziger provided her with the coping skills she needed to get through treatment: breathwork.

Danziger has worked as a nurse at UCSF’s Pediatric Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant unit for 15 years and believes one of the only aspects of control a patient has in the hospital is their own breath. Breathwork is especially helpful when a patient gets their chemotherapy treatment through a port (part of the central line that goes into your chest when injecting the treatment). As a registered nurse and certified yoga instructor, Danziger has helped many by bringing her outside practice into the hospital wing.

“I use the breath organically when we have to access [the patient’s] port with a needle, and they’re freaking out just by looking at the needle. I would just push my tray aside and say, okay. Let’s take three deep breaths. I’m not going to do anything until you get out whatever it is that you’re holding inside,” Danziger said. “Some kids cried, some kids screamed. Some kids it worked beautifully for. For the ones that it worked for, you could tell that there was a mental shift in the sense that, ‘I do have the power to use my breath to make me feel better.”

Courtesy of Kate Danziger
Working as a nurse in UCSF’s Pediatric Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant unit for 15 years, Kate Danziger is finally bringing her dream of a breathwork program to the hospital unit’s floor.

Babikian met Danziger shortly after she was diagnosed. Babikian had surgery to insert her port and as the anesthesia wore off, she was left in pain. Danziger had already worked a 12-hour shift that day, but decided to spend an extra two hours by Babikian’s side to bring her comfort and teach her breathing techniques to help with pain management.

“I was in a really bad state because I was scared and not feeling good. Kate and I just kind of connected. She sat by my bed holding my hand and helping me breathe,” Babikian said.

Babikian was preoccupied with the process of chemotherapy and the physical and mental stresses that came with it, unable to think beyond her survival. However, when she recovered, she realized what a gift her partnership with Danziger had been and how it fundamentally supported her through her chemotherapy journey. 

After their brief but meaningful interactions in the hospital, Babikian and Danziger randomly bumped into each other around Marin County. One day, while grocery shopping at Whole Foods in Mill Valley, Zoe and her dad, Jeff Babikian, ran into Danziger. This serendipitous meeting was where Danziger’s dream started to become a reality.

“Those were the sweetest words I have ever heard… I mean, when in your life have you heard, ‘I want to make your dream come true.’ It felt overwhelmingly beautiful. The thing about Zoe and Jeff is it’s very genuine,” Danziger said. “With everything that’s followed, oh my God, it’s the best feeling in the world. It feels really good to have these incredible people standing behind me and this program.”

Courtesy of Zoe Babikian
The goal is to raise $100,000 to launch a two-year pilot program.

Zoe, Jeff and Danziger began meeting to put the pieces of this project together. Zoe started doing phone calls and exchanging emails with the marketing team of UCSF and fundraising for the two-year pilot program.

“Zoe kickstarted [the program]. She decided that she wanted to do something for Kate, so we talked about options and came up with this plan together,” Jeff said. “Zoe decided that she was pretty fortunate long-term. She felt blessed that she had UCSF [staff] there and she wanted to give back.”

The pilot program’s goal is to raise a strong foundation of $100,000, which will ensure staff salary, direct patient care and infrastructure for utility. According to UCSF, the program will initially be located in the Pediatric Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant units, where one-on-one yoga and breathwork sessions will be provided to patients and their caregivers at bedsides. Weekly group sessions will also be offered to parents, grandparents and other caregivers of the entire hospital.

If you are interested in supporting Zoe and Kate’s program, please donate here.

To learn more about how yoga and breathwork are helping young cancer patients, click here.