Cancer, Healing

by Gail Sacco

I am a 64-year-old Conservative Jew, and I love that being Jewish means I have the opportunity to continually learn and enrich my life.

In 2010, I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer. I had a lumpectomy and radiation because the cells were primarily in situ, meaning they were just beginning to change. In March 2017, the cancer recurred; this time, larger and more aggressive. My treatment has included a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy. It will not be finished until the summer of 2018.

I had never been in a mikveh, but had been curious about Mayyim Hayyim because of its inclusive and contemporary philosophy. It seemed to me that Mayyim Hayyim looks at today’s world—and our issues as Jews—and finds ways to support these concerns within Jewish tradition. This appealed to me because it seemed in sync with my own beliefs. Initially, I thought I would go when my chemotherapy was completed. Though I finished chemo in November, I was not able to visit until March.

Many people congratulated me at the end of the chemotherapy, but truthfully, I didn’t feel joyful because the therapy continues, and I am still in the hospital every three weeks. Immunotherapy is scarier than chemotherapy because it is based on what-ifs. What if there are cancer cells still in my body? What if they have the potential to grow? What if this drug gives me heart failure? In my case, doctors do not use any scans or tests to predict another occurrence. They wait for symptoms. And for me, if there are symptoms, there is spreading. Because of my uncertainty about the future, going to the mikveh before I was finished with therapy seemed like a good idea.

A few friends gave me unfailing support during my journey, and I decided to invite them to join me in appreciation. Four of us took this piece of the journey together, three of whom had never been to a mikveh. I hired a limousine to take us the three hours to Newton. When we arrived, Rachel and Leah, our Mikveh Guides, greeted us. Leah gave us a tour of the mikveh, and then each of us had the opportunity to choose a resonant Immersion Ceremony and enter the waters. Mayyim Hayyim’s dedication to inclusivity and accessibility was made apparent to us. One of my friends had recently broken a bone in her foot and was able to descend into the water with the use of their aquatic lift that makes mikveh accessible for people with disabilities. This was a blessing because, without it, she would not have been able to immerse. After our immersion experience, our limousine took us to a restaurant where we enjoyed dinner together (with a brief stop at the Lee outlets!). Traveling in the limousine not only pampered us, but also allowed us to support each other.

I found the tour interesting and the Guides quite wonderful. I am grateful to Leah, Rachel, and Mikveh and Education Director, Lisa Berman, for being so supportive and understanding. But for all of us, it was really about the immersion. I followed Mayyim Hayyim’s Seven Kavanot (intentions) for Mikveh Preparation, and then I immersed. Although the preparation may seem somewhat pragmatic, these kavanot are an exercise in mindfulness. When you enter the waters, you realize that you are prepared.

Typically, I walk around many of my personal issues. I don’t really want to think about them because acknowledging and embracing them may take me to an unexpected place. I did not know what to expect at the mikveh, and what I found was quite powerful. I was in the living waters addressing God, expressing my gratitude and asking for help. The power of that experience, the way it made me recognize myself, stays with me still. I not only faced God in the mikveh, I faced myself.

All four of us were moved by our visit and immersions, and have since shared it with others in our community. I now see a mikveh as a place that supports my needs and helps me understand myself. I felt close to God in the waters, and while I still don’t know what the future holds, I feel that my needs were heard.

Gail grew up in Stamford, CT and currently lives in upstate New York with her husband and dog.