Headache. Heartbreak. Hospital.
These three words summed up my life for almost seven years, from the time I was diagnosed with cancer in 2011.
But then, there was a fourth word: Hope.
Just a few short years ago, I was an average person in the crowd, young and carefree and perfectly healthy. One day, I got an innocuous headache, which turned out to be a symptom of a brain tumor. And before I knew it, I was undergoing complex head scans, then brain surgery and subsequent radiotherapy, followed by chemotherapy.
It was an arduous time in my life. As a single girl, I watched my friends moving on in their lives, getting married and building families of their own. And all this time, I didn’t know what the morrow would bring. I didn’t know if I could dream of having a family.
In the midst of the hardship that is cancer, I thought of this latest injection of Hashem’s love into my life, a reminder that He’s always by my side, even when it doesn’t always appear that way to my human eyes.
I knew I needed to keep my mind off the heaviness of it all—I needed to hang on tight to the fourth H. And so, I got busy with my writing. I wove pieces of poetry which portrayed my pain, and the hope I was clinging to. And, in celebration of my birthday, I launched a daily kindness campaign, which I called “To Kindle a Kindness”.
“Have you ever noticed how good you feel after doing something kind and positive for others? This project is the perfect prescription for mental health!” I wrote to my friends. “So blow away those cobwebs; keep the blues at bay. Fight depression the ‘kindle a kindness’ way!”
Working on this project helped keep my mind off the chemo, which was already on its fifth cycle. When I discovered that this dose would take place before Pesach, which meant I’d be chemotherapy-free right through Yom Tov, I saw it as my own Pesach miracle.
Although I experienced my fair share of miracles, it was not smooth sailing by any means. After a bout of seizures, I was put through brain scans again. I remember waiting for the results. It was 10:30 in the evening, and one of the ward doctors came over and asked if there were any relatives with me. My parents were not with me at the time, so the doctor asked that my father come in. He told us that they had seen another brain tumor mass on my brain.
In the end, as it turned out, there was no second tumor. A subsequent scan by my neurologist, a senior physician, confirmed this relieving news. In the midst of the hardship that is cancer, I thought of this latest injection of Hashem’s love into my life, a reminder that He’s always by my side, even when it doesn’t always appear that way to my human eyes.
(Shocked once again beyond measure, I slowly digested the news, silently questioning, “Why is Hashem doing this to me?”)
Every round of chemotherapy meant going through another torture session, another bout of side effects. From the low of crying upon taking each pill to the high of hearing that the chemo was working, life was certainly one dizzying merry-go-round. Finally, finally, it was decreed that my turn on this ride was over.
And now, when I sit here reflecting with wiser eyes than before, I realize what a gift every aspect of life—even something as ominous as cancer—is.
How many times do we daven mechanically, without much thought, mindlessly thanking Hashem for the gift that is health, and even for life itself? When a person’s life is on the line, prayer takes on a whole new meaning. When illness strikes, we feel vulnerable, swept adrift by the turbulent waves. Because I was blessed to have the storm subside, I have the opportunity to look back with an enriched perspective.
The operation to remove my tumor left me with a numb leg and poor vision. Only now do I see what a gift it is to simply walk without feeling numb. Did I ever stop to appreciate that before? Why do we only appreciate what we have after it has been taken away?
Because I realized how healing it was for me to stay positive, I decided to count my miracles even in the bleakest of times. When we’re looking out for miracles, we simply feel so loved, so taken care of. One of the miracles I appreciated was that after being warned by the doctors of the various side effects of chemotherapy, including nausea, I was grateful that they did not actually occur after one of the rounds. I was able to go about my day while on chemotherapy pills, not feeling too bad. The pills made me feel slightly nauseous, but they were bearable when counteracted by an anti-nausea tablet. Chemo pills rendered the tumor in my brain dormant without causing too much damage to the rest of my body. I saw that as an open neis.
How did I cope with the uncertainty that the fragility of life brought me? Intellectually, we know there isn’t a test from Hashem that we can’t overcome, but how does this translate into action?
I constantly reminded myself that Hashem is the true Source of healing. He is the Rofei chol bassar, Healer of all flesh, as we say in the bracha of “asher yatzar”. Doctors are only the messengers; Hashem can bring the salvation at any time, any place and through any means.
When we’re looking out for miracles, we simply feel so loved, so taken care of.
Prayer is the Jewish people’s battle cry and their strength in all situations. Our response to fear is to cry out and proclaim “Shema Yisrael!” I remember lying on the examination table for my very first scan, petrified, frantically praying, not knowing what to expect, crying out “Shema Yisrael!” Al-mighty, hear my cry—only You can help me. Every time I took my medication, I’d remind myself of Who can truly help me, with this short tefillah: “Sheyehei eisek zeh li l’refuah ki Rofei chinam Atah—May it be Your will that this activity bring healing to me, for You are the free Healer.”
The human body is an amazing miracle made by the One and Only Designer Above. While some only appreciate this once they’ve had a health-related problem and are in need of healing or salvation, we can come to this realization even in a state of health. Focusing on the fragility of life may frighten us, but it leads us to appreciate the gift that is health.