Welcome to Our October Blog Series, From Rachel Hillman, Guest Editor
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a month where the media highlights breast cancer, research for treatment and, one day, a cure. During October, many women and men share their stories about how breast cancer impacted them or their family. Last year, after being diagnosed with breast cancer at 28, I marked the end of my treatment by immersing in the mikveh, an experience that I shared on Mayyim Hayyim’s blog last year. With the Jewish High Holiday season ending this week, I spent much time thinking about how my Jewish identity and my identity as a cancer survivor intertwine. The opportunity to guest edit the Mayyim Hayyim blog at this time feels like the perfect opportunity to explore this combined identity.
Join us each Wednesday this month for posts about breast cancer, Jewish life, and Jewish identity.
Sukkot and the Fragility of Our Lives
by Melissa K. Rosen
I was a little worried on Rosh Hashanah. By Yom Kippur, I was anxious enough to wonder out loud what I might look like without hair. The official call came right before Sukkot. I was in the kitchen preparing for the holiday and my husband was putting the finishing touches on our sukkah. It was 10:00 pm and the man who was an old family friend, and who I would soon call my oncologist, called to share the news that I did indeed have cancer and had a year’s worth of chemotherapy and radiation ahead of me.
It wasn’t a surprise, but now it was a reality and I finally allowed myself to break down. I had carried the fear with me through the New Year and was now shaking with anger that the cancer that had already invaded my body was now invading my favorite time of year, my favorite holiday.
I love Sukkot. I always have. I love the changing leaves, the cool breezes, the connection to nature and even the sense of fragility we face in the sukkah. This year, the fragility was not theoretical. Instead of mornings in the synagogue with my community and afternoons filled with delicious meals with friends and family, I would spend my Sukkot filled with staging tests, scheduling treatments and comforting my young family.
I wondered to myself if sometimes you need a clear sign to truly understand a holiday. I wondered if a cancer diagnosis on my favorite holiday would ruin the celebration forever?
The fragility of life was unmistakable to me that year. Sitting in the sukkah took on a vivid new meaning. But so did my sense of community. It was clear that I would not go through this experience alone. My family, my friends and the greater community stayed by my side. They provided child care, meals, rides, friendship and perhaps best of all, humor. They built a more solid shelter for me than I could have ever hoped for. The year of my cancer diagnosis I truly understood the fragility of life – and I truly understood the meaning of community. Despite Sukkot not going as planned, I learned its lessons well.
Now, each Sukkot that passes seems to be a celebration of life, not a commemoration of diagnosis. I do understand the fragility of our lives, and instead of bemoaning that fragility, I celebrate the strength I had, and the strength I have developed as a result of my cancer experience. I see Sukkot as a personal triumph and welcome it with open arms every year.
Melissa K. Rosen, Sharsheret’s Director of National Outreach, has a master’s degree in Jewish Communal Service from Brandeis University and has been working in the non-profit sector for over 25 years. Melissa oversees outreach efforts throughout the country, amplifying Sharsheret’s reach and connecting as many as possible to the support and resources of Sharsheret. Herself a two-time cancer survivor, she is passionate about the Jewish community and cancer support and advocacy.
In November 2004, a group of thirteen women gathered at Mayyim Hayyim. Some were cancer survivors; others were caregivers and health care professionals. They had each wished for a specifically Jewish, spiritual guide to the difficult journey through treatment and its aftermath, and decided to join together and create one. Blessings for the Journey: A Guide for Women with Cancer gives women access to Judaism’s spiritual resources and richness when facing the physical and emotional challenges of cancer. To purchase this book for yourself, or someone you love, click the link above.