3-bracha-logos-updated-1Going to the Mikveh can be the most purifying, spiritual, special and pampering experience. You treat your physical body with love and respect in preparation for a spiritual experience. Once immersed and rejuvenated, you dress and make yourself up so that you go home once again feeling as beautiful and as desired as on your wedding night.

However, it is not like that for everyone.

My mother and my sister, may they rest together in peace, died from hereditary breast and ovarian cancer at very young ages. As a result, I underwent genetic testing and discovered that I carried a genetic mutation in the BRCA1 gene. This meant that I had an 87% risk of having breast cancer and a 50% risk of ovarian cancer.

WOW! Waiting to discover cancer, even in the early stages, was not a good enough option for me. Both my mother and sister had discovered their breast cancers early, but hereditary cancer is very aggressive; once it begins it is hard to stop the spread of this type of cancer since it’s due to faulty DNA. Both my mum and sister discovered their cancer in its early stages, but Mum’s cancer returned time and time again. She died of metastatic ovarian cancer at 49.  My sister’s cancer returned repeatedly.  She died a year after her initial diagnosis at age 36.

My knowledge of being a BRCA1 carrier was a blessing– a blessing that scientific development had allowed. A blessing that my mum and sister did not receive. Discovering that I had a BRCA mutation was a gift that if used right, could lower my risk of cancer by 90% and protect me from being ‘the next’ in my family.

In order to live, I did the only proactive option available – a double mastectomy. I was left with scars and reconstructed breasts that were far from natural looking. But who would see? Me, my husband. . .  and the Balanit!

Oh, what fear to go to the mikveh! The once beautiful experience became a dreaded, fearful, humiliating experience that reminded me of my loss of breasts and of my new, scarred body that I had to learn to accept with love. I could do that while alone or with my husband because my new body had saved my life. But standing naked in front of the balanit was another matter.
Holding the towel as long as I could, muttering about operations, seeing the shock in her eyes as she tried to hide it or just seeing her pity. Whatever she would say was wrong and made me feel worse. It just intensified the feeling of loss of my family and the sacrifice I had made to live. It strengthened the embarrassment and humiliation of being seen naked after breast mastectomy and reconstruction.
That dreaded feeling wasn’t always there. It all depended on who the Balanit was. Educated mikveh attendants did not evoke the same pain for me– they understood my situation and their eyes radiated comfort and acceptance, even pride.  It made a world of difference.
Fully 1 in 40 Jewish people have a genetic mutation in the BRCA gene and many undergo operations to reduce their risk of full blown disease. Those that do not have this opportunity are at great risk of having breast cancer, which also results in scars and mastectomies. Balaniyot need to be educated; they need to know what to expect, how to react, and what to say or not say.  I have experienced the difference between a trained balanit and an untrained one and I look forward to the day when all mikvaot feel welcoming to all women– women who have had cancer, those who reduced their risk by having prophylactic mastectomy, those who come pre-surgery (with chemo tattoos), and those who are post-mastectomy -reconstructed or not. I pray that the mikveh lady will know how to welcome them all and make them feel like normal, whole women so that each one can embrace and enjoy her mikveh experience.