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People celebrate many different anniversaries, the most common ones being wedding anniversaries and in the Jewish community, the yartzeit, or anniversary of a person’s passing . As a single woman in her early 50’s, I haven’t celebrated any of my own wedding anniversaries and unfortunately, I’ve marked too many of my parents’ yartzeits. Now, I have an anniversary of my own to celebrate for one year ago today, I became CANCER FREE when my surgeon removed a tumor from my left breast, which though it was small, it was ‘angry.’ At that same time, I began living a new ‘normal’.
While this anniversary is mine and mine alone, I would not have made it through this first year without the help and support of my family, friends, and community. From my brother who called me so regularly that I didn’t feel the 3,000 miles that lay between us. My friend who joined me at my surgeon’s office the day the biopsy results came and was by my side every step of the way. My family and friends who called, sent cards, gifts, and e-mails to be sure I knew that I was not alone, was being thought of, and encouraging me to keep up my spirits. My co-workers who were supportive in many ways: bringing my first student up from breakfast, taking up my slack on those days that I was subpar, and just being supportive. To those in my community: my Rebbetzin who called on a regular basis to check in on me, and my friends and neighbors, who if I had allowed them to, would have done EVERYTHING for me. Yes, this was MY journey, but I was NOT alone.
Following my surgery, I began writing e-mails to keep family and friends abreast of how I was doing, where I was as far as treatment was concerned, and some of the ‘adventures’ along the way. I thought that I was doing this to make it easier for me, rather than making individual phone calls (which I often didn’t have the strength to do). But what I got was support, kudos, and admiration for how I was handling everything with determination, strength and humor. Hearing how I was inspiring people, how I was supporting THEM through this, gave me strength. I felt each response was a link that was making me stronger.
There is much that I have learned this past year: My life is forever changed, I have a new normal – I’m a survivor!! I have an inner strength that is far stronger than proven during previous ‘life tests’. Laughter is great medicine. A good cry can be good medicine, too. It is okay to ask for help. We are not meant to travel these journeys alone.
Links, connections, support, strength, help, community – all describe Sharsheret…and though I linked up with Sharsheret late in my journey, I am looking forward to becoming a strong link in their chain…not only to help me navigate my new normal, but, should the need arise (G-d forbid), to help someone much like myself navigate her way, hopefully with a lot of laughter and smiles.
My Sharsheret Story is actually two stories that quickly entwined into one. I was diagnosed with stage two, invasive ductal carcinoma in February of this year. Although it was not a surprise, it was demoralizing. I had already been through a different cancer experience years earlier and although I knew I would, I often felt I could not “do it” again.
As I struggled, I naturally turned to the Jewish community which has been at the center of my entire life. I knew of Sharsheret. Years as a professional in the Jewish community had made me aware of its existence. I explored the website and ordered information. I made a call and spoke with a member of the support staff. I had a specific question, which she answered and then offered me additional support as needed.
I spent the next months recovering from several surgeries and then triumphantly ordered my Thriving Again survivorship kit. Again, I spoke with the support staff who called to follow up on my request. I thought the kit was enough, but as we spoke a bit more, we discovered there was something else they could help with.
Before my diagnosis I held two part-time jobs in a local synagogue. I took medical leave from one position and stepped down from the other. Now that I was through my treatment, I was looking for new employment and worried about disclosing my diagnosis to potential employers and managing follow-up care. Sharsheret supplied several wonderful resources and guidance about cancer and careers.
During my job search Sharsheret was looking for a Director of National Outreach and it almost felt bashert (destiny) to me. I had the professional skills and training and now I had the personal experience. I have always worked my passion. I heard another cancer survivor say “Make your mess your message.” Either way it felt like Sharsheret was the place I was meant to be. Thankfully, they felt the same way.
I did worry that immersing myself in the world of breast cancer might feel overwhelming. Sure, I anticipate difficult moments, but the word I would use to describe it now is not overwhelming, but empowering. I look forward to many year of empowerment!
An article published yesterday in the Wall Street Journal highlights cancer survivorship care programs, not only as an emerging trend in the medical field, but as an essential accreditation standard for U.S. cancer centers by 2015, according to the Commission on Cancer. With an increase of early detection and advances in treatment options, more and more people are living longer after a cancer diagnosis. As noted in the article, the National Cancer Institute indicates that there will be 18 million cancer survivors living in the United States by 2022.
This article reinforces our notion that women need support throughout their cancer journey, from before diagnosis, during treatment, and through survivorship. Recognizing the need for the development of survivorship care programs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded Sharsheret a grant in 2011 to launch Thriving Again, a comprehensive survivorship program for young Jewish breast cancer survivors. We were able to draw from over a decade of our experience working with young Jewish women facing breast cancer and develop a culturally-appropriate program that touches upon the entire spectrum of issues and concerns that cancer survivors can face, even years after treatment has ended. Sharsheret’s survivorship program offers free survivorship kits which address both the medical and psychosocial needs of cancer survivors through informational resources, and action-based tools such as a healthy living cookbook and fitness DVD.
The program also offers a customized survivorship care plan. In addition to the survivorship kit, members of our clinical staff work directly with each survivor to develop their own personalized survivorship care plan. As indicated in the article, after months of treatment, many survivors can feel overwhelmed and isolated during their transition into survivorship. Sharsheret’s care plans, designed to be completed with a health care professional, can be used as a tool to help organize each woman’s survivorship journey and allows them to focus on living a healthy, fulfilling life.
This year my resolution is to finally learn how to bake challah. I have tried, not so successfully, in the past. I am in awe of the process. I take simple ingredients -water, yeast, flour, and salt - and transform them into beautiful, delicious bread deserving of a holy blessing. But the transformation is not an easy one.
There seems to be so many choices and as a novice challah baker, I become overwhelmed. Do I choose the recipe that includes sugar or honey? Should I follow the recipe offered by my friends or family? I haven’t even begun to bake and already I am overwhelmed.
I begin by putting the yeast in the water. The condition of the water has to be just right, not too cold and not too hot. And then I wait. Is the yeast taking? Do I see it frothing or bubbling? Can I trust what I see? I take the chance and move on to the next step. The flour has to be added slowly until the dough is formed. I knead the dough for what feels like forever. I place it in a bowl, where it sits covered and in darkness, and I wait again. Will it rise? I have no choice but to be patient. If it doesn’t rise, I have to begin again. If it rises, I will move on to the next step. It does, and as I set about shaping the dough, I’m faced with more decisions. Should I make a three-braided challah or a six-braided challah, or perhaps a round challah at this time of year? After I shape the challah it must rise again, so back it goes under cover and into the darkness. More waiting.
It emerges from the darkness and I brush egg over my challah and place it in the oven. I am hopeful. There seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. I inhale the delicious smell of challah as it fills my home with an enticing aroma for all who enter to enjoy, and bask in the glory of my accomplishment. I did it! I have taken these ingredients and turned them into a thing of nourishment and beauty and I have learned so much from the process.
When we are faced with illness, we can feel overwhelmed by the choices and what lies ahead. Whose guidance do we seek? Who do we trust? We are left with questions. Will these treatments work? I won’t know immediately. I can only do the best that I can do. I will have to wait and see. It is hard to be patient. Not knowing can feel frightening, but it’s important to remember that things can change in the darkness. Sometimes we can feel kneaded and stretched, while at other times we can experience the joy that fills our homes and our souls, like the smell of the challah in our midst.
The light at the end of the tunnel can be hopeful no matter where we find ourselves in this journey. We talk about the new normal - seeing life through a different lens after a cancer diagnosis - but in many ways, I now think about it as the new and improved normal. It is within our reach to bring meaning to our transformation.
This year, as you drizzle honey over your challah, take the time to reflect and find the sweetness in your transformation. I wish all of you a meaningful and sweet New Year.
By: Shera Dubitsky, Sharsheret Clinical Supervisor
© 2015 Sharsheret: Your Jewish Community Facing Breast Cancer
Sharsheret is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization ID# 13-4198529
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