Wondrous Warriors: Carol Zerilli Attitude Is All
By Marianne Hamilton
Just after Memorial Day, Carol Zerilli was feeling a mite testy. A chronic case of plantar fasciitis had again flared up, mandating a reduction in her four-times-weekly water aerobics schedule. The self-professed adrenaline junkie admits that she was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. But, with the characteristic cheerfulness that makes her a favorite at her aqua-fitness classes, she took the temporary setback in stride.
After all, the payoff would be a full return to podiatric perfection, and her ability to join Charlie, her husband of 18 years, on a six-week backpacking trip along the Pacific Crest Trail. The adventure would see the couple covering 600 miles – on foot.
It would be the Zerillis’ third PCT outing on the 2,650-mile route (which boasts a total elevation gain/loss of 315,000 feet). During their first stretch, in 2014, the pair logged 1,100 miles, sharing a tiny tent with virtually none of the comforts of home. Two years later the Zerillis covered another 400 miles, before a family emergency ended their trek. The couple also has taken two separate, 90-day backpacking trips across 17 European countries.
Few mortals would choose to test their constitution (let alone their marriage) under such demanding conditions. Then again, for Carol Zerilli – who’s surrendered a kidney to renal cancer and has triumphed over breast cancer – her travels with Charlie are more like…well, a walk in the park.
A native of New Jersey, Zerilli spent much of her career in Colorado, where she was a National Airspace System (NAS) Implementation Support Contractor at Denver Air Route Traffic Control Center. By the time Carol and Charlie – whom she met at work, then married – retired, she oversaw engineers in 21 air traffic control facilities nationwide.
Carol credits her mother with passing along the indomitable spirit that has seen the St. George resident through some very dark times. “My mom has always been my inspiration,” Zerilli says. “She told me that no one and nothing should ever stop me from doing what I want to do. I’ve always tried to pass that inspiration along to our three kids.”
Zerilli’s health challenges first surfaced on a Saturday morning in 1999. As Charlie was leaving for work, Carol suddenly felt ill. She begged her mate not to leave – then promptly passed out. A battery of tests yielded grim results: Along with a bacterial infection in her spine, she had a tumor in her right kidney. And, it was malignant. “The good news is, they removed the entire kidney, and I’ve had no further side effects, ever. Now I just have a smiley-face on my belly,” she reports, laughing.
Fast-forward to 2004, when a hyperactive thyroid gland needed to be slowed, then “killed,” through a course of medications. “It was pretty wild,” she recalls. “After about 30 days your thyroid actually dies, and then you’re on meds for the rest of your life. That was definitely a crazy experience.”
These days Zerilli – as usual – makes light of those early experiences. But she says they prompted some intense reflection about priorities. “Charlie and I decided that life’s too short, and we wanted to retire as early as we could. We figured out how to make sure our kids’ college would be paid for, and then invested in some real estate in St. George. And on June 30, 2012, we retired and prepared to enjoy the good life.”
Still, the fates had other ideas. During an annual physical a few months later, her doctor detected a lump in Zerilli’s right breast. Further testing revealed the tumor’s malignancy. Zerilli was given two possible dates for surgery, the first of which was Valentine’s Day. “Charlie and I said, ‘let’s not wait; every day is Valentine’s Day in our house anyway.’”
Following a lumpectomy and radiation, Zerilli was given a clean bill of health. It undoubtedly helped that she showed up for her daily radiation treatments sporting the clothes – and the determination – she’d need to hit the trail immediately afterward. Says Zerilli, “Charlie and I were doing geocaching off Highway 91, so I’d go in for treatments every day at 8:15 a.m., and then we’d hike the rest of the day. One of the male nurses said ‘Carol, I can’t do three miles on my treadmill, and you’re hiking every day after undergoing radiation? That’s insane.’”
Along with the quality of communication and superb support that Zerilli receives from her spouse, she says she draws strength from those she has met in the St. George community. Even as she faced her cancer treatments, she and Charlie joined one Meetup group for hiking enthusiasts, and another comprised of board game fans. “Having a great support system around, I didn’t feel like I was going through everything alone,” Zerilli notes. “Being around all of these wonderful people really helped me keep a positive attitude. It’s all mental.”
With six weeks of Pacific Crest Trail trekking ahead of her as we went to press, Zerilli was focused on her blog’s motto: Dream. Explore. Discover. “That’s pretty much how we live our lives,” she concludes. “Dream about something, explore it, and look at all of the things you discover. For me, once a door’s open, it’s hard not to say, ‘let’s keep going.’”