Yonatan Gher
Executive Director, Greenpeace Mediterranean
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One Donald down

Coming out a second time -- this time with cancer -- was a whole lot easier

During my brother’s and my bar mitzvah trip to the States, we went to Six Flags Great Adventure. Among the many rides, they had one great big roller coaster, which may have been their tallest and scariest at the time. It starts out with the steepest, longest and slowest climb one can imagine, and stops for a few seconds too many at the peak just before a freefall which continues into several loops and other terrors.

I have a fear of heights, and another one reserved just for roller coasters, but the peer pressure was too great (and probably involved the aforementioned bar mitzvah and becoming a man), so on the roller coaster I went. The climb was longer and more agonizing than I could imagine, during which I learned one important life lesson, which was that I could cry and beg if I wanted, but the train isn’t stopping to let me off. As we inevitably approached the peak, I realized there was just one thing I could do that was still in my control: I could close my eyes. Three minutes later, it was over, and with my eyes closed it wasn’t nearly as scary as it otherwise would have been.

This past June, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. Pro tip: If over a short period of time you keep getting complimented for weight-loss which you haven’t been attempting, you should see a doctor. My final clue ended up being my wedding ring suddenly slipping off my hand.

One CT and a quick colonoscopy confirmed it. By the way, this isn’t a “Colonoscopies are easy and you should go get tested” piece, but they are and you should, and read Dave Barry for more on that.

One thing I’ve learned is that the way you want to find out you have cancer is by easing into it. In my case it went:

  • Doctor says the symptoms are serious and need to be checked, but cancer is way down the list of what it might end up being;
  • Then the CT said “space occupying lesion” (which Google explained was doctor-code for something that looks like a tumor);
  • Then the colonoscopy called it a neoplasm (which again Google said is how a doctor does not write “a new and abnormal growth of tissue in some part of the body, especially as a characteristic of cancer”).

So by the time the doctor finally sat me down all somber-faced to say “You have cancer,” I was at, “Good. Now that we’re finally being open about this, can we discuss the plan?”

Cancer is a very charged word. We all know someone, or several, who have died of cancer. Our culture  minister (!), Miri Regev, once compared Sudanese asylum-seekers to cancer (and then apologized to cancer patients for the comparison). I think one of the reasons I was so comfortable being open about my diagnosis from the start, and writing about it now, is that realizing that a very charged word applies to me is familiar territory. It’s a coming out, and I’ve been there and done that.

The hardest part in coming out back when I did was coming out to myself: realizing that the word “gay” applies to me, but without all the negative connotations. Saying “I’m gay” didn’t make me walk any different or talk any different or anything else I grew up associating with the word. So when the term “cancer” entered, it was easy for me to see it for what it is: still serious, and quite the ordeal, but not some huge shady grimm. Side note: you have to be both gay and with cancer to be allowed to compare the two.

Further tests confirmed the cancer had not metastasized, which was lucky. So we just had to deal with one tumor, an ugly, nasty, pain in the ass that we needed to get rid of. So I named it Donald.

I quickly discovered that living with cancer isn’t all that hard. The first part, when it’s new, was easy, as I described. Some took the coming out talk harder than others, so I needed to support them during the conversation and promise that it would all be okay. My 10-year-old took it like a champ. Not hiding, not whispering behind his back, and being up-front about it all went a long way towards reducing his fear and concern.

The Talmud rules that “A man’s wife is as his own body.” Rabbi Aryeh Levine (d. 1969), known as “the Tzaddik of Jerusalem,” exemplified this ideal. On one occasion, when accompanying his wife to a Jerusalem clinic, he explained to the physician: ‘Doctor, my wife’s foot is hurting us.’ (from Chabad.org)

We learned that much harder than having cancer is being married to someone who has cancer. All I needed to do was show up where I was told and lie there. In both the best and worst case scenarios. My husband, on the other hand, needed to deal with work, and kids, and me and my morbid humor. He may be a man, but he’s an Eshet Chayil nonetheless.

When it was no longer new, waking up was the only annoying part of the day: going from “Mmmm, it’s a beautiful morning” straight to “Oh yeah, I still have cancer.” Still on the roller coaster from which I can’t get off till the ride is over. But there was surprisingly little fear. Over the summer, I went in for daily radiation, and a week ago I had surgery in which Donald was removed, together with a nice little slice of colon that would make any pot of cholent proud. I knew that I could always close my eyes if it gets scary, but there was no need. Somehow, the uniqueness of the experiences helped curiosity trump fear.

Another reason I couldn’t bring myself to hate the treatment, was the recognition of the immense privilege I enjoyed throughout. Knowing that many, in Gaza for instance, are unable to access such healthcare, or in the rare cases when they do, it comes with an unimaginable ordeal. Physicians for Human Rights are working hard to try and change that, so please do consider supporting their work.

I’m sharing my story, because I figure that the more people share their stories, the less scary this becomes. If you get such a diagnosis, know that it’s not the end of the world. It’s messed up, it’s scary, but it’s also an opportunity. An opportunity to get to know yourself better, to learn about yourself that there’s nothing you can’t overcome. It also does wonders in rediscovering friendships and the devotion of your loved ones, and your own appreciation of them.

So, one Donald down, one to go.

And this is dedicated to my surgeon:

About the Author
The writer is the Executive Director of Greenpeace Mediterranean. Previously he was the Director of Amnesty International Israel (until May 2019) ; Former Executive Director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, and Communications Director for the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel. Born in New York, Yonatan grew up in Jerusalem, and now lives in Jaffa with his husband and two sons.
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