I will always remember the excitement of returning home to spend Pesach with my family right before our wedding. It had been a few months since I had seen my family and my grandmother z’l gifted me with going back home to Israel as I was then living by my Savta in America, engaged to be married. After arriving home, I have a vivid memory. That moment replays most in my mind. It was the telephone conversation I overheard. My mother was speaking to her doctor. The C Word. No one ever spoke about the C Word. And no one knew how to react.
My Ema had breast cancer. CANCER. I continuously kept repeating the word to myself over and over again to accept it. To understand it. Twenty years ago, when my Ema was diagnosed, there was no such thing as support groups for women with breast cancer; there were no organizations available to hold a woman’s hand and guide her through the process; there were no resources to help her understand what was happening. We were on our own. And it was not simple.
I went back to the states after Pesach however I struggled being so far away. I felt helpless. During our engagement, my mother spoke about her diagnosis with the family. For us, as we went through our engagement, the details of our wedding became less significant, the small decisions became even smaller. My mother had surgery before the wedding and then started chemotherapy soon after returning home. I was in America; she was in Israel. I was far away and starting my new marriage, and I tried to do the best I could for my Ema, to support her in any way that I could.
Fast forward 20 years and my Ema Baruch Hashem is alive and well. Thriving. I had the privilege to organize an event for The Eden Center raising awareness for breast cancer, which also provided a forum for Survivors to openly tell their stories and share the ongoing challenges that they face. For the first time, my Ema got up and publicly told her story. I couldn’t have been more proud of my Ema’s courage as she described the lesson of resilience that she learned from living with and surviving breast cancer and the way that it has impacted her life. She inspired us all that evening. It inspired me to strengthen my connection to The Eden Center, and the need to continue in helping them in their mission to spread awareness to other women – women who are just like my Ema.
As I searched for ways in which I could continue to make a difference, I was inspired to volunteer to become a balanit (mikveh attendant) in my home community. I have loved every minute that I have spent as a balanit. I cherish the opportunities to be there for other women, to be sensitive to each woman’s individual needs, at any and all stages of their lives, and in particular those struggling through illness. The Mikveh is OUR mitzvah, a woman’s time for renewal, connection, prayer, hopes, and oneness with G-d. It is a privilege to be there for women — to support them and, I hope, inspire them.
As life happens, another year passed. And now, 21 years after I got married, again on Erev Pesach, my Ema sensed that the C word was back. Today, the C word is no longer an unspoken word yet a word we hear in our households way too often. My Ema’s breast cancer is back. And so, again, another difficult Pesach. This time however, there is so much to grow and learn from the past. I have the chance to be there for my Ema. She needs support. As does my Abba. As do her children. As do her grandchildren.
I asked my Ema what she needed from me. Her answer—she didn’t want to got to treatments alone. I am pained by memories of the past when I was not there for her because I couldn’t be, but I promised myself that this time would be different. And that is exactly how it has been.
I have created a Whatsapp group of family and friends that say tehilim for our Ema on an ongoing basis. And by ongoing, I mean it is running 24/7- tehilim being said whenever anyone on the group has a free moment. To date, we have completed Sefer Tehilim 48 times. I also organized a Seudat Amenim, an evening filled with brachot in the zechut of our Ema’s refuah. There were blessings benefitting my Ema, all the women who attended, and for all in need. This gives my Ema chizuk knowing she has a team of people rooting for her and davening for her. She knows she is loved and supported. She knows she is not alone.
I wish I could take the cancer away. I can’t. None of us can. G-d willing she will be fully recovered and healed. We can view the cancer as an opportunity to make a difference. I can use it as an opportunity to make my mother feel loved and supported. I can use it as an opportunity to pray. I can use it as an opportunity to ask others to help too.
May Devora bat Nisa Etel be granted a complete refuah shlemah. She has an army who loves her and we all, every age, everywhere across the world, are on the same team rooting for a cure. May the blessing for this month bring light and healing to all of us, especially those who need it. May the light burn as bright as ever.
This blog is being published to coincide with Chanukah, which reminds us of God’s light in the world in the darkness of winter, and the publication of The Eden Center’s most recent resource: “Hope and Healing,” a guide for navigating mikveh during BRCA/breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. We hope that it can provide comfort and healing for all those going through this difficult process, and daven for their refuah shlemah.