Jill Zarin was floored when she and her husband, Bobby, learned two years ago that the thyroid cancer they thought he had beaten in 2009 had returned – and moved to his lungs.
“I was hysterically crying,” the former Real Housewives of New York star tells PEOPLE. “I was scared to death.”
When Bobby, 69, was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer, he had his thyroid removed and underwent a radioactive iodine treatment. “The radioactive iodine usually kills off whatever undetectable cancer cells are left in your body after surgery,” he says. “We thought it was cured – and it usually is in about 93 percent of cases. But I wasn’t able to absorb the radioactive iodine. So it came back.”
Bobby says he had no symptoms the first time he was diagnosed – or the second. He found out that the thyroid cancer had spread to his lungs at a routine checkup at the Princeton Longevity Center.
“If it wasn’t for that routine checkup, it could have been too late by the time we would have found it,” says Jill.
Even though she was upset, Jill, 51, says she sprang into action to try to find the best treatments for Bobby. “I wanted to do everything I could to help him,” she says.
Working the phones and researching the best treatments available led them to David Pfister, a top oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York, Dr. Keith Bible, a top oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and then to Dr. Richard Lazzaro at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital, a leader in the field of robotic thoracic surgery.
“Dr. Lazzaro immediately did a biopsy and diagnosed that it was not lung cancer but that it was thyroid cancer in the lung, based on the pathology report,” says Jill.
After regularly scanning the tumors in Bobby’s lungs for more than two years to see if they had grown, and getting a fourth opinion at the Mayo Clinic in April, Lazzaro removed them using the da Vinci Robotic System, a minimally invasive option for major surgery.
“What Dr. Lazzaro does is amazing,” says Bobby. “He sits at one end of the room at what looks like an Xbox, controlling a robot that does the surgery. So instead of making these huge incisions, which leaves you with all these scars and all the things that go with a big surgery, they go in with these tiny little tubes which are cameras and tools that remove the tumor.”
Within hours of the surgery, he says he was surprised that he was able to get up out of bed. “I stayed in the hospital for three days, but I was walking around that same night of the surgery, not like in the old days when you had a long recuperation and major scarring,” says Bobby. “It’s a big difference.”
After Bobby’s tumors were removed, Jill immediately had samples of the cancerous tissue sent to billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, whom she had seen on CBS’s 60 Minutes talking about the cutting-edge, high-speed tumor genome sequencing machines he has developed at his company, Nantworks, which try to pinpoint genetic mutations to battle a patient’s particular cancer.
“Nobody is doing what he is doing,” says Jill. “We reached out to him and he took Bobby’s case. We are very lucky.”
She and Bobby are awaiting the results of those tests. “I am very hopeful that he can help me,” says Bobby.
In the meantime, he and Jill have teamed up with the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation, which is honoring Bobby at a benefit on July 11 in Bridgehampton, New York, called “A Hamptons Happening.”
Bobby and Jill hope to raise $1 million for a new grant for research into targeted therapies for thyroid cancer research at the benefit.
“It’s actually a very exciting time for cancer research,” says Bobby. “There are a lot of new developments. The way of looking at cancer treatment is really changing. Before, if you had prostate cancer, they treated that. If you had breast cancer, they treated that.”
He continues, “Now they are treating cancer in a whole different way. It’s not where you have it but what kind of cancer you have – targeted therapy. I have thyroid cancer, and it could be anywhere. In my case, it moved to my lungs. But it is still thyroid cancer. They treat thyroid cancer differently than lung cancer. That’s why this is so important.”
He says he is beyond appreciative of all that Jill has done to help him beat cancer. “Jill got a group of doctors together who are like the A-team,” he says. “She really looked into everything and did so much research. It’s good I have Jill on my side.”
Says Jill, “When it comes to a cancer diagnosis, some people don’t want to tell anybody. They feel if they don’t tell anybody, it’s going to go away. Like if you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist.
“We are willing to share our story in the hope that it will help someone else,” she says.
Beyond the “tremendous strides” the medical community is making with cancer treatments, Bobby says there is another big factor when it comes to fighting cancer.
“It’s all about your outlook,” he says. “Many of my doctors tell me that a large percentage of the way you heal and feel is your attitude.
“You have to have a positive attitude. I have always been very optimistic and my doctors feel that has been a tremendous benefit to me.”
Click here to support the campaign by buying tickets to the event or by making a donation through the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation.
For more on Jill and Bobby Zarin, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday