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.
Why I Don’t Call Myself a Survivor
by Eve Lader
My grandparents, immigrants from Eastern Europe, often spoke Yiddish around the house where we all lived together in Brooklyn. I was never really interested in learning the language, despite my grandmother’s desire to teach me. There were a few words that she insisted I learn—words that didn’t exist in English. I find myself thinking of one of them, kenahora, almost every day. ‘Don’t tempt the evil eye,’ she always said. ‘You don’t boast, you never know what might happen….don’t jinx yourself.’ Kenahora.
So I never use the word survivor. When someone wants to talk about how I feel or how great it is that my cancer is gone, I say, “One day at a time. So far, so good.”
Yes, I’ve had breast cancer. Twice. The first time I was diagnosed was 2011, right before my 50th birthday. I didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the possible outcomes. Obviously, I would do everything I could to fight this disease. Beyond that, it was in God’s hands. So I prayed. I prayed for the time to see my three girls get settled in their lives; to know that they would be okay if anything happened to me; to be there for their graduations the following year.
From the day I was diagnosed, these prayers became an important part of my daily life. Each night, as I lay in bed, I silently talked to God. It made me feel both humbled and empowered. It allowed me to express, in some way, the fears and hopes that I dared not speak of out loud. It gave me hope that maybe God was listening.
Within the month, I had surgery followed by a year of aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. The drugs sometimes made me sick and often made me tired. I lost my hair and got blisters in my mouth and on my feet. Yet the treatments made me feel comforted. I was doing something to prevent the cancer from coming back. We celebrated when my last treatment was over, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was losing a safety net.
One day at a time.
I moved on with life. I was blessed to watch my daughter be ordained as a rabbi; to be there for my middle daughter’s college graduation, and send my youngest off to high school. I felt the need to stretch myself. I ran my first 5K, pushed my water-phobic body onto its first cruise ship and had an amazing vacation with my family. I took swing dancing lessons. My nightly prayer ritual continued, but with a new slant. I was so thankful but still wary. Please let me continue to be well; let me be there for my family; let me meet my grandchildren. Like a good girl, I had my annual mammogram and follow-up MRI each year.
Almost two years to the day from my first diagnosis, an MRI found a new cancer in the same breast. This time, I opted for a bilateral mastectomy. I didn’t want to spend my life worrying about something showing up in the “good” breast. I also chose not to do the reconstruction that would mean going back for multiple procedures over time. I just wanted to get it done and get back to living my life. Once again, I went through many months of chemotherapy. Once again, we celebrated when my last treatment was over.
“So what now?” I asked my oncologist. “I obviously can’t have a mammogram anymore, so how do we monitor for recurrences?” Short answer: we don’t. Studies have shown that the outcome from recurrences is the same whether they catch it on a PET scan or from some symptom that shows up. So every few months, I see my oncologist for blood work and a brief examination. Beyond that, I’m flying blind.
I still don’t dwell on possible outcomes. I am happy; I am grateful. My family is my life and my lifeline. I treasure spending time with my husband, my amazing children and my two beautiful grandchildren. I am stretching myself in different ways now, trying to give back, to do good. I am a hospice volunteer, visiting patients. I collect warm socks and distribute them to those undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, sharing a bit of comfort at a dark and frightening time.
Yet every day it’s there, that little ‘what if’ dwelling in the back of my mind. And in the quiet of the night, every night, I still silently pray. I have so much more life to live. I will never call myself a survivor. No kenahora.
One day at a time. So far, so good.
Eve Lader is a former marketing executive turned full-time mom living in Boyds, Maryland. She is the president of Socks for Sisters – Maryland Chapter, and a volunteer with the Jewish Social Service Agency.