Welcome to Our October Blog Series, From Rachel Hillman, Guest Editor
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a month where the media highlights breast cancer, research for treatment and, one day, a cure. During October, many women and men share their stories about how breast cancer impacted them or their family. Last year, after being diagnosed with breast cancer at 28, I marked the end of my treatment by immersing in the mikveh, an experience that I shared on Mayyim Hayyim’s blog. I have spent much time thinking about how my Jewish identity and my identity as a cancer survivor intertwine. The opportunity to guest edit the Mayyim Hayyim blog at this time feels like the perfect opportunity to explore this combined identity.
Join us each Wednesday this month for posts about breast cancer, Jewish life, and Jewish identity.
by Rachel Hillman, Guest Editor
Seven times over the course of the summer I sang the blessings of Havdallah, the service that separates Shabbat from the rest of the week, with Jewish high school students and staff at various summer camps. With my arms around the shoulders of those next to me, we looked up into the clear sky for three stars, smelled the cloves as they were passed around the circle, and saw the reflection of the candles in our fingernails. As I sang the final blessing that marks the transition back into the week from the holiness of Shabbat, I found new meaning in its words:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, hamavdil ben kodesh l’chol
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who separates the holy from the mundane
Havdalah means “separation,” and each week as we marked the separation from the holy of Shabbat to the mundane of the rest of the week, I was reminded of the increasingly long separation I am feeling myself, between the time last year during my breast cancer treatment and the time, now, where I am cancer-free. I first felt this separation when I immersed myself in the mikveh’s waters on my first day as a cancer survivor, marking the separation between treatment and the rest of my life. My experience with the mikveh allowed me to take care of my spiritual self after I had spent so much time taking care of my physical self; but as the months passed since my experience with the mikveh, I found my spiritual self feeling distant. Havdalah this summer brought me back to focusing on my spirituality.
As I said shavua tov (“have a good week”) to my colleagues and campers, I found myself realizing that from my day of diagnosis to the day I ended treatment, I was living in a “holy” bubble, my own personal Shabbat, and that the separation we feel as we go from Shabbat to the rest of the week feels similar to the ongoing separation I’ve been living in since my treatment ended. I was shocked to think of my period of cancer treatment as “holy,” since it was the worst and scariest time of my life. But, while I faced the horrors of having breast cancer, I became a better version of myself. I allowed myself to be vulnerable: by asking for help and accepting help, often in the form of meals or financial assistance; by crying at work when I just couldn’t keep my eyes open (or just because I had breast cancer and I was allowed to cry about it); and by allowing people to come over on my worst days, when I could barely get myself to change into “day” sweatpants and sit on my couch and watch trashy television. I didn’t dwell on feelings of being sorry for myself and I didn’t sweat the small stuff in the way I normally do.
I pushed ahead, confident in my treatment plan and my medical team. I wasn’t concerned about the future, knowing that I had to take life one hour at a time. I was living my life in a sacred time and space, this “holy” bubble. However, I couldn’t wait to be back to my “mundane” life – I wanted to be traveling, to go on a walk without feeling winded, to be a twenty-something in a fun city once again.
And here I am now, thirteen months after finishing my treatment, back to my everyday life, and with that comes many of the feelings and emotions that I pushed aside when I was in treatment. I am concerned about every pain in my body, any moment when something doesn’t feel right. I put up walls in lieu of allowing myself to be vulnerable. I don’t bring people to follow-up appointments, or share with many people when those appointments are approaching, even though they come with added anxiety and concern. Some days, I crave the vulnerability and “holiness” that I felt during my treatment; other times, I want the separation between my cancer and my current life to be as concrete as the separation between Shabbat and the rest of the week.
I know I can never go back to a truly “mundane” life, but I also can’t be in a holy bubble forever, just as we cannot spend every day celebrating Shabbat. I now need to integrate the balance of holiness and mundane as I navigate survivorship and this new version of myself, the me who has learned what it means to be “holy” in new ways.
Rachel Hillman lives and works in Washington, DC. In between kicking cancer’s ass, working to increase BBYO’s effectiveness and reach, and traveling to places near and far, Rachel pretends to enjoy running, yoga, and experimenting with healthyish recipes. In reality, she enjoys binge-watching television, reading on her couch, and making nachos.
In November 2004, a group of thirteen women gathered at Mayyim Hayyim. Some were cancer survivors; others were caregivers and health care professionals. They had each wished for a specifically Jewish, spiritual guide to the difficult journey through treatment and its aftermath, and decided to join together and create one. Blessings for the Journey: A Guide for Women with Cancer gives women access to Judaism’s spiritual resources and richness when facing the physical and emotional challenges of cancer. To purchase this book for yourself, or someone you love, click the link above.