On Wednesday, March 23, I received the results from a biopsy I’d been dreading ever since the women of my family started getting diagnosed, one by one by one. Invasive carcinoma. Breast cancer. The doctor breaking my news was compassionate and poetic. “Looks like you caught it early. This will be a hiccup on the road.” I wrote the words—“hiccup on the road” on a page of my notebook and I titled the page Reassurance.
A double mastectomy and sentinel node removal later, I’m holding onto “hiccup.” With chemo and radiation up next, it’s feeling like a hiccup the size of Mt. Vesuvius. Still, there is road after the hiccup, and for that I am grateful beyond all respiratory or journey metaphors.
Here’s how we’ve been coping so far:
—My husband has been finding amazing mastectomy tattoos online and sharing them with me. We’ve discovered quickly that these cheer me up. I no longer care about the alleged prohibition against tattoos in Jewish cemeteries (is that still a thing?) and am fixated on ink. I’m leaning toward getting a Tree of Life.
—In addition to tattoo surfing, my husband has been Omer counting according to the Sefirot—a Kabbalistic practice for marking the days between Passover and Shavuot by taking reflective stock. Each week carries an ethical theme. The week of my surgery was Chesed (lovingkindness), which he embodies, convincing me I’m beautiful no matter what.
—With our young children, it’s been all about the moment. The day I came home from the hospital, I explained to them how gently they must hug me now, while I heal. My son dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around my legs as I crossed our threshold. When I crawled into bed, my daughter covered me with a blanket while my son make-believe walked his Lego spider up my leg, offering reassurance. “Don’t worry, Mommy. His legs are soft,” he said.
—A week later, my daughter has grown resentful of the gifts streaming in. “Why are you the one getting the presents?” she complained. Her gripe brings me relief that gifts are the focus here. So easy to address. My son’s gripes, issued at night as I tuck him into bed and seemingly out of the blue, have been far harder to digest. There’s this one, for example: “Why do all people have to die?”
My own response—not to his question but to my diagnosis—has been an inner battle between Anxiety and Surrender, and only occasionally Despair. I’ve been joking to my husband that two channels, Jewish neurosis and Buddhist-infused mindfulness, are competing for dominance over my mind, sounding something like this—
Jewish neurosis: “You’ve got cancer—surely you’ll die! And then, your husband will die too and your kids will be orphaned! Shouldn’t we change our guardian assignment, so that they can stay with their cousins nearby instead of move cross-country to California?’
Mindfulness channel: “Surrender. You are spacious. There’s room. The path is the path”
Daily I’m shuttling from self-blame (I’m sick because of all that sugar and stress) to blaming the anti-Semites (it’s because my shtetl ancestors lived in ghettos and married first cousins) to knowing that there is no blame.
My mother has been busy blaming her father, who like her and her two sisters, had breast cancer himself (more rare, and more hereditary, when male). She’s reported to my husband: “I could kill my father. Except that he’s already dead.”
My father has been witnessing my anguish up close, wishing he could wish it away. “Mir far dir,” he’s said, Yiddish for “It should be me instead of you.” It was something his grandfather said to him. I get it. And it pains me that my pain pains them.
This is how the suffering of a close-knit family becomes a centrifuge. We’re rotating around a sole axis, forced into a container that’s spinning rapidly, yet trying hard not to spin out of control. My loved ones are doing a good job shielding me, separating out what’s mine and what’s theirs in the centrifugal force. But I know they’re hurting deeply, individually and as a team.
When breast cancer—or any illness, I would imagine—strikes a family that functions as a loving community, those who accompany the soon-to-be-survivor on her journey are touched and tested, and yet they’re seen to be secondary sufferers.
But suffering is not a solo activity, as my friend Bekki reminds me, much as we’re conditioned to think of it that way. Two days after my diagnosis, Bekki—who happens to be the executive director of my synagogue—shared with me a reflection she wrote for that Friday night’s services, catalyzed by my news and inspired by influences ranging from Susan Sontag to Hebrew Union College’s Bill Cutter. She wrote about how illness is not an individual affliction, how it ripples out to touch so many, and how the family, friends, caregivers, and community of the ill also need care. In Bekki’s eloquent words:
“We have made enormous strides in our understanding of how cancer works, particularly at the genetic level. But I believe we still lag behind in our cultural understandings, in the way we talk about disease and how we respond when we hear of someone who has been diagnosed.
The Jewish prayer for healing, Misheberach, asks for “refuat ha nefesh v’refuat ha goof”—the healing of the soul and the healing of the body—recognizing inherently that the two are distinct and both necessary.
I found an interesting translation of the Communal Blessing for Healing: May the One who was a source of blessing for our ancestors, bring blessings of healing, a healing of body and a healing of spirit. May those in whose care they are entrusted be gifted with wisdom and skill, and those who surround them be gifted with love and trust, openness and support in their care. God, let your spirit rest upon all who are ill and comfort them. May they and we soon know a time of complete healing, a healing of the body and a healing of the spirit. And let us say: Amen.”
Bekki noted that she loved how this version of the prayer recognized “the many facets of healing—the soul and the body, the individual and the community—and that it reaches towards that elusive thing ‘refuah shlemah,’ a complete healing.”
A complete healing, she noted, “requires not only science, but spirit as well.”
So while my doctors offer up their science, I offer up spirit to those living this alongside me. May those caring for me during The Hiccup on the Road find healing and comfort in mixed metaphors. May my husband find the courage to reach out, and may he practice lovingkindness for himself. May my daughter receive presents and my son full-body hugs from friends. May my father know that his strength is mine. May my mother find solace in herself.
They say I will survive this, that a long life is no less uncertain than it was on March 22.
May my community help me find the courage to embrace that reassurance. And let us say: Amen.
Delia Levy is the pseudonym of a writer living in the Midwest. She plans to write about some of this more publicly after her treatments are through.