In Memoriam

Remembering Rochie

This woman of untold grace helped so many heal faster from breast cancer, including me; now, I can do nothing but scream NOT FAIR that the illness has claimed her
Rochie Rachel Schitskovsky, z"l. (courtesy of Marne Rochester)
Rochie Rachel Schitskovsky, z"l. (courtesy of Marne Rochester)

“You need to join a support group.”

I nodded into the black cordless phone receiver cradled on my right shoulder. “I know,” I whispered hoarsely to my sister, Yael, the clinical psychologist. The scar on the top of my left breast from the lumpectomy I’d had 10 days earlier tingled, as if it were listening. Then I cleared my throat. This time, louder. “I know.”

And I did. I knew that I needed help to unpack what had just happened. A breast cancer diagnosis dropping down from the sky. Speed-weaning my 14-month-old, who refused to eat in time for surgery. The baby whose fine hair I was stroking as he nodded off in my lap. Tears collected in my eyes.

I rocked us both in the black leather rocking chair in the family room, facing the sunshine. A few minutes earlier, Eitan, my almost-3-year-old, had propped Amit on my chest in the nursing position and said, “Feed him.” I can’t, I cried. Yuval, 4.5, the oldest, caught my tears. Like me, the nursing recliner had fallen from grace. Now it was just a garden variety La-Z-Boy rocking chair.

Over and over, I was told to “join a support group.” By my husband. By my mother, also a clinical psychologist. By my ex-boyfriend. By my girlfriends from here and there. Don’t isolate yourself. People who join support groups live longer, better and stronger. Research says.

Okay.

But where, exactly? And how? Where was this support group supposed to emerge? And how was I going to get there? I was reeling from surgery and fearful of death. My hands were busy feeding, bathing and playing with my baby and two other sons under 5. Where was this support group supposed to be? I couldn’t lift my left arm comfortably. I couldn’t imagine driving. I had zero energy or oomph to get across town. I certainly didn’t feel like I could spend money on therapy, when who knew when I could work regularly again. My husband and I had our hands full, balancing our children — and our anxiety.

“There’s a breast cancer center near you,” volunteered my friend, Ayala. Two weeks after surgery, she emailed me the monthly schedule of Hadadi — The Center for the Breast Cancer survivor. “Contact the founder, Rochie.”

An Excel chart spread across my oversize computer monitor, dotted with activities in lavender and hot pink: Hebrew-language support group, English-language support group. Yoga for breast cancer survivors. Cosmetic workshops. Holistic treatments.

My eyes widened as I scrolled down to the address on the right hand corner. The center was literally a 14-minute walk from my home, just down my street and turn right to 106 Bethlehem Road, inside Emunah College. It was called Hadadi, a play on the word “dad,” biblical Hebrew for breast, and the Hebrew word, “hadadi,” mutual.

Reaching out for help constituted an announcement. It was a form of acceptance, an exhortation: I have breast cancer, and I ought to fight it with other women doing the same. I inhaled deeply.

I dialed Rochie’s cell phone number. When she answered, I heard the hum of a car and the chatter of children. Driving carpool did not stop her from sharing. “So sorry to hear about your diagnosis,” she said. “I was 36 years old and 30 weeks pregnant.” I inhaled sharply. Felt a lump in her right breast in the shower, had a 6-year-old and 4-year-old at the time. That she couldn’t nurse her newborn daughter because she had to start chemo. The trauma of losing her hair eclipsed the trauma of losing her breast. She shared her story in quick flashes, a narration of the past as her life moved forward.

Later that day, she emailed me. It was December 24, Christmas Eve. Rochie was my not-so-secret Santa.

Hi Ruth (or Ruti — what do you prefer?),

I am glad you found us. I hope it would make your journey more bearable. I am not happy hearing of new women joining our sisterhood, but at least we can help.

Attached is the file with the schedule. Let me know when’s the best time for you for dance therapy. As I said earlier today — the Wed. at 9-10 is taken already.

If there is something else — tell me, and I will register you. If you just want to meet and talk — we can also do that.

Hope to meet you soon.

All the best, really,

Rochie

I would soon learn that Rochie was a native-born Israeli, and that this impressive English was just part of her being whip smart.

I’ll take the 10 a.m. slot for individual dance therapy with Revital Katz Yekutieli, I wrote back. Revital was a dance therapist and psycho-oncologist, and we clicked instantly. After one or two sessions of talk therapy mixed with belly dancing, I already felt better. I had a place to process disease, the unknowability of it all, my fears, my hope to return to myself. And it was all free.

On January 12, I emailed Rochie:

I am healing better and faster because of you!

Her reply was quick in coming:

All of the battles to get funds and the sleepless nights because of it are all worth it to hear something like this.

In no time, I’d become the Hadadi poster girl, as Rochie liked to call me. I went to couples therapy, psychodrama, reflexology, guided imagery. Sunday mornings I went to yoga classes taught by a breast cancer survivor who tailored the class to our medical needs. Wednesday nights, I went to belly dancing. I attended lectures on sexuality and got free theater tickets, gifted to Hadadi. Rochie encouraged me to help myself to some handheld fans with Korean logos for hot flashes. At the English-language support group, I saw a bold, bright bald woman with no eyelashes just living her life. My medical team did not know yet if I needed chemotherapy; the uncertainty of how I would manage with three little ones was crushing. But seeing this peppy, animated woman comforted me. I could do this, I thought to myself.

Rochie talked straight dope. Sometimes it was tricky to hear. Tamoxifen won’t necessarily be a walk in the park, she warned. Sex won’t be the same after certain medical treatments. (She was right.)

And I valued that. I appreciated her willingness to share and be direct. It couldn’t have been easy to retell (relive?) her survival story 20, 40, 80 times. To almost single-handedly create the community she wished she had had when was she was diagnosed.

Rochie also brought medical smarts to the table. She had a B.Sc. in biology so she could read scientific articles and understand them. That also allayed my concerns. She was speaking from knowledge.

Perhaps most profound was the place she created to contain my fears. My fear of dying. Aches and pains made me sweat. Were they small pockets of additional cancer? “That’s one of the hardest things to live with,” acknowledged Rochie.

Like Target, Hadadi had everything — even curated books and movies with happy endings! Here’s the promotional film that includes my husband, kids and me. (Note how little my children are!)

Hadadi was a center for breast cancer survivors, and a place where breast cancer survivors could feel centered. Where they could anchor themselves on the couch, laugh, nibble on sugar-free chocolate (because research suggests sugar isn’t good for cancer survivors), and complain. The emotional unpacking I did in those support groups helped me process elements from my whole life. Not just the scaffolding related to cancer. I was healthier, mentally, than I had been before.

Although I was not a BRCA carrier, I decided to prophylactically dump my ovaries, after consulting with doctors. I reached out to Rochie, and she supported me in that decision as well.

Life went on. Breast cancer and the sisters who went through it with me faded in the background.

Through a chance meeting, I learned that after 15 years, Rochie’s cancer had come back. Crushing news. It had spread. The unfairness of it all made me want to scream.

Rochie, you created a grassroots place where the support really happens. You and Hadadi saved my ass. Where I would be today without your unflagging encouragement, dynamic and loving community and across-the-board programming? Granted, there was some funding, but you were its oxygen. You gave me, all of us, the tools and courage to survive.

In the calculus of life, you should have gotten a pass. You should have been granted an extra 100 years for the 100 lives you saved, probably even more.

Oh, I wish I had told you more often how much you helped me. I went to pay a shivah call and met your incredible other half, Mark. Well, you left your own imprint. How can I repay you? You did everything right, and still the cancer came back. I want to scream, NOT FAIR!

As I scribble these words on plain white unlined paper, weeping over a small empty table at Café Aroma, across from Teddy Stadium, my son — that baby I weaned when I was diagnosed — is across the street, scaling the walls at the climbing gym. He grips with his hands and feet on to plastic hand holds, fixed anchor points, footholds, incuts and protrustions up the wall. How fitting that he climbs higher and higher, ascending.

Thanks to you, we’re climbing, too. Countless breast cancer survivors throughout Jerusalem and its outskirts, whom you helped, to whom you gave the gift of life. Quietly, and with untold grace.

Sadly, breast cancer patients and survivors today cannot turn to Hadadi – The Center for the Breast Cancer Survivor. Without Rochie to lead, the center remains dormant, quiescent.

May your memory be for a blessing.

Yehi Zichra Baruch.

(Courtesy, Marne Rochester)
About the Author
Ruth Ebenstein is an award-winning American-Israeli writer, historian, public speaker, and health/peace activist who loves to laugh a lot--and heartily. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered An Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. She is also the author of "All of this country is called Jerusalem": a curricular guide about the contemporary rescue operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and has written two teleplays for children, Follow that Goblin and Follow that Bunny. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tablet, WomansDay.com, Good Housekeeping, Triquarterly, CNN.com, USA Today, the Forward, Stars and Stripes, Education Week, Brain, Child, Fathom, and other publications. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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