On this date 19 years ago, I received a cancer diagnosis with a bleak prognosis. You have too much breast cancer, they said. Less than two years, they said. Go home and write your will, they said. It’s pretty bad, they said.
And yet here I am, thanks to determination, dedicated physicians, ever-expanding medical knowledge, the love and support of hundreds of people, and being in the right place at the right time.
Having chosen to forego breast reconstruction, I have become a role model for other women, and that is something I am grateful for. In fact, there is much about having cancer that I am grateful for, including the impetus it gave me to earn a master’s degree in Jewish education, which eventually led to becoming a rabbi.
In Hebrew, the word for life, chai, also has the numeric value of 18. Hence the fact that many Jews make charitable donations in multiples of 18. Last year, I was ordained just days before the 18th anniversary of my diagnosis; 18 years ago I was entering into a new phase of my life, and this year I feel that I have indeed embarked on a new life.
It is impossible to know what my life would be like today without breast cancer, or what kind of person I would be. It changed me in profound ways that I did not understand then and still do not today. I have accepted that it is an integral part of who I am. And I know that I am a better rabbi because like almost everyone I encounter, I too have suffered.
And I have learned that trauma is trauma. Mine is no more significant than yours, yours no more life-altering than mine. Life is full of traumatic moments, events, diagnoses. In a split second, everything changes, and going back to “before” is virtually impossible.
I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. Some things just happen. There are consequences, some good and some bad, but that does not mean there is a guiding hand behind the defining event. God didn’t plan for me to have cancer. God didn’t want me to learn from cancer, or even to become a rabbi because of it.
Frankly, I don’t believe in a God who sits around thinking about me, or anyone else. I believe in a Divine Mystery that I cannot understand, a Force/Power/Indescribability that I can tap into to nourish my soul if I open myself to the Beauty/Joy/Abundance that Is Beyond.
I could use more words, but none of them would be adequate. Words are a human tool. They are limited. God (for lack of a better word) is not.
On this date, all I can do is be grateful, for these past 19 years and the days or months or years ahead.