The Eden Center recently published breast health education posters to be hung at mikvaot. We believe that women should know their bodies well and that while preparing for the mikveh, women can easily remember to check and notice any changes in their bodies and breasts. We are also aware of the emotional element of these checks and asked Sharsheret’s Director of Support Services, Shera Dubitsky to help articulate and mollify some of those concerns.
“Fulfilling the mitzvah of mikveh always triggers a rush of emotions for me. My take-away from my kallah classes was that mikveh night can feel like a wedding night every month. It marks the time my husband and I can hope to conceive a child. It’s a special mitzvah unique to women. All of these beliefs are beautiful, hopeful, and inspiring. If only that was what my mikveh experience was like.
I have a strong family history of breast cancer. I try to push this thought away most of the time. Yet, on mikveh night, I am ambushed with feelings of “could this be the time I feel something?” Why do I do the exam when I prepare for the mikveh? I know there are opinions that self-exams are not impactful. But I want to do everything available to me to protect my future. I do it on mikveh night because it’s a time that I care for my spiritual and physical well-being.
I have learned to find the balance between what I learned in kallah classes and what I learned about my family history. This is my reality and I accept that taking care of my body and soul is what makes my mikveh experience so emotionally complex… and empowering”. —Leah, 35 years old
Sharsheret is a national not-for-profit organization supporting young Jewish women and their families facing breast cancer. Our mission is to offer a community of support to women, of all Jewish backgrounds, diagnosed with breast cancer or at increased genetic risk, by fostering culturally-relevant individualized connections with networks of peers, health professionals, and related resources.
We have spoken with many women who share Leah’s experience. There is a flutter of emotions for most women around the mitzvah of mikveh, whether it’s about a woman’s relationship with her husband, her relationship with G-d, fertility, or simply carving out time from her busy schedule to go to the mikveh. Adding this layer of emotion about performing a self-breast exam on mikveh night may be overwhelming.
Women feel anxious about self-breast exams because the unknown is very scary. What if a lump is found? How serious is this? Will there be surgery? Chemotherapy is frightening. What about my family? Will I be here to raise my children? In a matter of 30 seconds, questions are asked and because there are no concrete answers in that moment, we weave stories. When there is a gap in information, we become creative writers, and we are often overachievers in imagining worst case scenarios.
How we choose to write our story often impacts decisions about how proactive we are when it comes to our health, including going for mammograms, MRI’s, doctor exams, or self-breast exams. If the story we write is scary enough, we may avoid these screenings for fear that our worst imaginations, our worst fears, will become reality.
But there is another version of the story that goes like this:
“I went to the Mikveh and performed my self-breast exam as part of my preparation for immersion. For the first time, I felt something. I thought to myself, “this is not right,” and in my gut I knew that this was the beginning of a very scary journey. I cried all the way home, and that night, my husband held me close and showed compassion. The next morning I made an appointment and within two weeks, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next 8 months, I underwent surgery and treatment. Throughout my journey I found strength and comfort knowing that combining my check with the mikveh ritual, unique to Jewish women, saved my life. And today, I am a healthy mother raising my five children”.–Aliza, 42
This story is the tale of empowerment. It tells the story of a young woman who chooses to be proactive, of women who want to increase our chances of detecting cancer at an early stage, when the cancer is most often treatable and curable. Many women diagnosed with cancer report that not knowing is often the worst part. Once they know what they are facing and have a plan of action, they feel grounded and are frequently surprised by their previously untapped inner strength.
The story Leah tells is that mikveh night, for her, is a time to tend to her spiritual and physical well-being, despite the challenges that presents. Aliza’s story is one of gratitude and strength knowing that by taking ownership of her health, coupled with an ancient ritual, she saved her own life. While the future is unknown, we are able to write our own stories. The page is blank. The choices are yours. What story do you want to write for yourself?