Written by Robin Nafshi, Rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob
This past June, I was diagnosed with uterine cancer. While I was only 50 at the time of my diagnosis, it really wasn’t a shock. My father – and his sister – had cancer. So did his mother and his uncle. And I have since learned, so did his grandfather, his mother’s father. I have always taken after my father. Although not consciously, I think I have been “waiting” for a cancer diagnosis for about the past ten years.
I’m the luckiest in my cancer-stricken family. My great grandfather, my grandmother, my great uncle, and my aunt all died from – or from complications relating to – their cancer. My father survived and is doing well, though his cancer was stage 2-3 and he underwent months of intensive chemotherapy and radiation. My cancer, on the other hand, was stage 1, and I required surgery only, with no follow up treatment.
Initially, I had a hard time thinking of myself as sick. My doctors were so optimistic and upbeat. And I take the half-full – not the half-empty – view of life.
One day, just after my surgery, I received a package in the mail from a colleague and classmate who had served for a number of years as a rabbi in the Boston area. In the package was a copy of Blessings for the Journey: A Jewish Healing Guide for Women with Cancer, published by Mayyim Hayyim. I was familiar with Mayyim Hayyim, as I am a rabbi in New England and have been there to witness a number of conversions. But I was not familiar with the Healing Guide.
I opened it and began reading. I could not put it down. The gift of the Healing Guide was that it allowed me to access feelings I did not know I had. I had felt the fear – but I was repressing the anger at my body, the vulnerability, the loss, and the change that occurs when one becomes a “cancer survivor.”
And while I was going to be fine now, I did have cancer, a form of cancer directly related to the other cancers in my family and which makes me a likely candidate for other forms of cancer in the future. The Healing Guide allowed me to wrestle with all that that meant.
After my full recovery, I visited Mayyim Hayyim, immersed in the mikveh, and uttered words of gratitude. I also purchased copies of the Healing Guide. I have given it to two congregants who have been diagnosed with different forms of cancer; they thanked me profusely. I keep copies in my office, always making sure one is available for the next woman who receives the news.