It has been 8.5 years since I was blessed with advanced breast cancer. Yes, you read that correctly: I said “blessed with cancer.” While many readers might be shaking their heads, thinking I’ve lost my mind, I have had 8.5 years of hindsight in which to come to the conclusion that my experience with cancer was, indeed, the greatest blessing I’ve ever had.
A little background: When I was 37 years old, I was diagnosed with stage IIIC breast cancer. That means my cancer had spread to my lymphatic system, but had not yet reached a major organ, thank G-d. I had no prior risk factors for breast cancer; I was not BRCA I or II positive; so I was completely unprepared for this diagnosis. At the time, I did not consider it a blessing. However, I did realize that G-d had answered my prayers in a rather strange way. Everyone has heard of the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for because it may come true,” and no, I never wished for cancer; but at the beginning of that fateful week, my daughter had come home from a birthday party with a tick on her back, and I had panicked, worrying that she might have contracted Lyme disease. The very next day, I left work to a phone message from my son’s school, notifying me that he had been slammed in the head with a basketball and kicked in the back by another student. That Wednesday, I had to take my daughter to get tested for Lyme disease. As I was in the doctor’s office, I prayed silently that if G-d wanted to test me, He should do so through me and not my children. Lo and behold, the very next day, Thursday, May 14, 2009, I got diagnosed with cancer. My prayers were answered: My daughter did not have Lyme disease, and my son was just fine. My first blessing: I got the cancer and my family members didn’t.
Blessings continued: I was not BRCA positive; my diagnosis came late enough in the school year that I was able to prepare my students’ exams and finish teaching them prior to my surgery; I, my mother, and my husband were all off for the summer (because we are all teachers), and therefore, I had a lot of help during the bulk of my treatments; my kids were given a scholarship to the local day camp so that they would be occupied while I was doing chemo; my community arranged for meals to be sent to us practically every day, including Shabbat, while I was incapacitated; community members went above and beyond anything we might have expected or hoped for when people offered to take my children out for ice cream or bring them to camp; one brought me and my entire family Snugglies because I was so cold without my hair; one community member brought me flowers for Shabbat; one brought fresh-baked challah every week; one dropped me off while another picked me up from chemo when my mom or my husband couldn’t come. These were the very obvious blessings.
When I was first diagnosed, my dad, who is a very wise man, brought over Rambam’s hilchot teshuva in one hand and a large bag full of classic comedies in the other. To this day, I believe he taught me exactly how a Jew should deal with adversity: On the one hand, it was necessary for me to introspect and improve my life for the better so that the me who merited the cancer was no longer extant. On the other, I needed to keep a positive attitude throughout my cancer treatments, surgeries, and follow-ups. I realized that what my coworker, the school psychologist, had told me was correct: There are two ways to ask “why?” in Hebrew–madua and lama. For the question of madua, there is no answer a human being can understand–it is in the realm of G-d. But lama can also be interpreted as li mah, for what purpose. My cancer was meant to teach me something. Why I got cancer was irrelevent; what I should do about it was not.
Prior to my cancer, or as I like to say, “BC,” I was a very angry, stressed out person. I was not the greatest mother or wife, because I would always blame my family for things going wrong in the household, at work, or in life. I would scream and yell and use profanity, and I would wonder who this woman was who was behaving so horribly to her loved ones. Because of my cancer, and specifically because I didn’t want it to come back, and I recognized that stress had played a major role in my getting sick; I decided to ask my oncologist to put me on a low dose anti-anxiety medication. That medication has made a tremendous difference in my ability to handle stress and deal with it appropriately, without blowing up at my family. In addition, cancer taught me that life is short. One doesn’t always have the time to push off the things that one wishes to do in life. One must use the time one has to find joy and live life to the fullest, as if every day were one’s last. I recalled Kohelet saying that it was better to spend time in a shiva house than at a party. This is because going to pay a shiva call reminds people of the temporary aspect of life and hopefully motivates people to live their lives more carefully and with more meaning. At one point during my treatments, I just didn’t know what the outcome of my cancer would be. I tearfully wrote letters to my children and to my husband in case I didn’t make it. Following my treatments, I lived with the fear of recurrence practically every day. Until finally, one Shabbat, while I was crying my eyes out to G-d, begging Him not to take my life earlier than I wanted, I came to the epiphany that I did not want to live my life in fear and tears. I had been granted extra time for a reason, and I needed to trust G-d that everything would be fine, regardless of what happened to me. Once I’d had this “aha moment,” I was able to focus more on just enjoying my life and doing as much as I could for other people who were suffering from cancer and other misfortunes. I realized that there was no time to waste–if I wanted to do something, I’d best do it posthaste. No longer did I yell at my kids if they spilled something or broke something. No longer did I curse and say vicious things to my husband if he forgot to do something I asked or if he just happened to look at me the wrong way. No longer did I get violently angry when I was held up in the car in traffic or when someone kept me waiting in the grocery store. Instead, I made a commitment to always greet people with a smile (as Pirkei Avot enjoins us to do). I decided that if I could spread a little positive energy, I could make a huge difference in people’s lives. Instead of worrying so much about the future or being afraid of things not going my way, like I had been BC, I would just concentrate on living in the moment. Cancer taught me to appreciate EVERYTHING I have, and to thank G-d for each and every miracle He performs for me on a second-to-second basis. I’ve learned that the secret to real happiness in the world is simply being grateful. Perhaps now you understand why I consider cancer the greatest blessing in my life.
Because I believe I’m living on borrowed time, I try to improve myself as much as possible and do as many mitzvot as time and inclination allow. I’m nowhere near where I want to be, but my commitment is to keep pushing forward and moving up that proverbial ladder of life so that when the time comes for me to meet G-d, I’ll only have to travel a short distance further.