When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer the craziest thing happened. A lot of women came to the house in the first couple of days; close friends and neighbors, moms of my sons’ classmates. People brought cupcakes and flowers; there were a hundred kindnesses. But the crazy thing was, that almost without exception, the women who crossed my threshold were showing a lot of cleavage. I mean a lot. At first I thought it might be my own heightened awareness of breasts as a subject and I mentioned it to no one, but after several days of the ladies showing off “the girls,” it became impossible to ignore. It was like the Saint Paulie Girl beer fest. I cautiously mentioned it to my husband – it had not escaped his notice.
Now years later I have come to understand more deeply what I think was happening then. These wonderful women who had come to support me were not flaunting their health, but rather [subconsciously] reassuring themselves that they were safe. The idea of a cancer diagnosis had caused them to literally clutch their breasts in fear. A fear I understood well. I was scared too. The night before surgery and reconstruction, I had a going-away party for my breasts. I donned a beautiful bra and recalled all the good times. I took photos, which are in the PhotoBooth app on one of my old laptops. And I had a this-was-your-life retrospective: from being felt up hand-over-shirt at the movies, to going braless in college, to being tuned like a radio in a French lingerie department and finally, breast-feeding my infant sons. It is scary to contemplate the loss of your breasts. But it is small potatoes (pun unavoidable) compared to the fear of dying of cancer.
I tell the story of the nice ladies and their décolletage because I am now a cancer survivor. Or should I say, “for now” I am a breast cancer survivor. None of us knows why or why not someone survives cancer and while we’re at it, I can assure you it has nothing to do with fighting valiantly – it has only to do with cancer. I have lost people I love to cancer and you have lost people you love to cancer. The fact of my survivorship is not because of anything I did and the loss of my peers is not because of anything they didn’t do. But allow my survivorship to remind us that while it is certainly possible to die of cancer it is also possible to NOT die of cancer.
During the period of my recovery, I heard a High Holiday sermon given by Rabbi Sharon Brous, of L.A. spiritual community IKAR. The rabbi taught a passage from the Mishnah that for me gives an elegant explanation of how to best support each other in this moment. When people would enter the Temple Mount in pilgrimage, they are instructed to circle clockwise in the courtyard. When a person who is considered “mi she’eriro dvar” (“someone to whom something awful has happened”) returns to their community, they enter the courtyard by the same gate, but circle in the opposite direction. In this way, the returning person encounters each and every member of the community. And the people in the community are obligated to stop and ask “mah lach?” “What has happened to you?” And the returning person is obligated to answer. In this case, the answer would be, “I have survived cancer. I have done the hard work of treatment and I am here now back with you.” And each and every person they encounter answers, “May God bring you comfort. May you feel the presence of this holy community, and know that you are not alone.”
This instruction is so generous to the person returning, because when they have completed this revolution they will, and their community will, remember them as themselves. They will be informed that this person has had a travail, but the person will be restored into the natural flow of the community. They will be seen, and they will feel the support of their fellows.
I have nothing but gratitude for the women who came in those first days. Because although they certainly felt their own fear, they did not let fear keep them away. There is no wrong way to be kind, but there are some ways to be kinder. Because the thing that a cancer patient longs for, beyond clean scans and being sent home in good health, is to return to who she was. Of course she is changed and her body is changed and her stamina is changed and her world view even. She definitely hates pink now. But her wish is to be back in the world, to be part of it and contribute to it in a real way. So the real and beautiful gift you can give to a cancer survivor is to welcome her back. Treat her with compassion yes, treat her with support and affection, treat her to lunch even. But work hard to recognize that you are not afraid of her, you are afraid of cancer. Then set your fear aside if you can, and welcome her.
National Cancer Survivors Day (June 5) is to raise awareness and to celebrate survivors of all types of cancer, but also to provide inspiration for newly diagnosed. So, when you let the cancer survivor you know return to the community as your friend, a mother, a coworker, a sister, your lawyer, your favorite singer, a supreme court justice…you allow them to return to being themselves. And this visibility and the fact of her contribution may help women who are newly diagnosed to be less afraid. Because that person facing cancer treatment will have a better idea of what the future can look like. And I can tell you, from where I stand, it looks pretty good.
Special Bonus Section! How you can help cancer survivors
For a cancer survivor the end of treatment is really the beginning of recovery. How can we be kind and considerate to survivors after they have finished treatment?
- Walk with her, literally. Scheduling a walk (if might be more of a stroll) is a way of staying connected, helping her to restore her fitness, and offering up “companionable silence” or keeping her up with the latest dish.
- Drive her somewhere. If you invite her to lunch, a movie, dinner offer to pick her up. Driving can take a lot of energy and she might want to preserve it for more fun things than schlepping.
- Two for one. If you’re shopping for groceries or shoes or school supplies offer to pick something up for her or take her with. Again, if her energy is limited you let her spend it on something fun.
- Kvetch! Is is okay to complain about your own life (husband, kids, this weird rash) to a cancer survivor? For me the answer is yes: it was a great relief when my girlfriends started kvetching again and allowed me to be their friend. Yes, cancer trumps a lot of things but that’s not the point. The point is your concerns matter to her and it’s a good way to restore the balance of your friendship.
- Plan ahead. Make a plan together for something far off in the future: a trip, theatre tickets, a hard to get into restaurant. There is something beautiful in imagining a destination that is a little far off because of the optimism it takes to plan for it.
- Testing…Testing… Schedule your screenings together: mammograms, colonoscopy, and skin check first; and schedule a ladies lunch, mani/pedi, trip to Italy, for after.
- Stay in Touch! If you’re at a loss, try one of these wonderful empathy cards by cancer survivor Emily Mcdowell. Getting some old-school mail is still kind of nice. Humor is a big part of healing for everyone.
Grok With Us:
- Have you ever avoided seeing someone because of his or her diagnosis/treatment? Why? What were you concerned or frightened about?
- After treatment, survivors can often experience issues with fatigue. Would you hire a survivor after treatment, even knowing that they may have health challenges? What about the dating realm? What concerns you about either of these situations, and how would you handle it?
- A lot of cancer survivors have started to reject the language of being called a “warrior” or “brave” or “heroic” or even “survivor”: why do you think they react this way to those labels?
Racelle Rosett is an award-winning television writer (Blossom, thirtysomething) and Jewish short story writer (Moving Waters,) a mother, and a blogger (My Chemo Brain) and in her spare time, a cancer survivor. She is a 2016 fellow with the Institute for Jewish Creativity and has been awarded a Word grant for the study and writing of liturgical poetry. Learn more about her at: www.racellerosett.com.