Community, cancer and celebration

Not all illnesses are equal. It’s fine for people inform their surrounding if they suffer from heart disease or diabetes. But at least in days past, cancer was something that many people preferred not to make public.

In Western countries, approximately 12% of all women will get breast cancer, which translates into the famous, one in eight. In developing countries the incidence is somewhat lower. The BRCA 1 and BRCA2 genes are nasty buggers. Mutations in these two genes are responsible for 5-10% of all cases of breast-cancer and they are about 40 times more prevalent in Jewish women of European descent. What that means, in short, is that relatively more Jewish women get breast cancer than women in the general population.

Over the past five years, more than ten women that I’m aware of in my community have been diagnosed with breast-cancer. Far from all of these cases are due to the BRCA’s. It can just be general bad luck. But for a while it seemed like an epidemic, almost like something contagious. And we are all Jewish women, mostly of European descent.

Once a case of breast cancer has been diagnosed, the physicians in charge will come up with a treatment plan which can vary greatly, depending of the stage and type of cancer. Breast cancer is in fact not one thing, but can be caused by a number of different cells gone nuts. There are many types of treatments available, surgery, radiation, chemo-therapy and other kinds of medication or a combination of different therapies. There are also many different types of cancer patients, some will have to put their lives on hold completely while they are concentrating on trying to regain their health, other’s will do their darndest to continue business as usual.

After prayer services on Saturdays, the Sabbath, we always have a communal gathering, with a set menu of veggies, cookies, crackers and some junk for the kids. Members hang out and talk a bit, before we part for the week. If there is a special event, suck as a big birthday or a wedding, the person celebrating often invites the whole community for an extended munch, on this occasion. Last week, for example, one of our old-time members celebrated the 40th anniversary of moving to Israel. And this week was also special. A group of ladies who have fought breast cancer and won in the past five years invited all of us to a celebratory event. One of the risk factors for cancer is life-style and eating habits. So, this was a happy and healthy celebration and it was delicious. No artificial coloring, no sugar, no white flour. But lots of caring, sharing and carrots.

Not all the women who have been sick took part in this. Some are not public about their former or current condition.  Z. and J. , two representatives of the formerly sick women, addressed the congregation during services. Because we are a community where most members have emigrated from other countries, mutual assistance is of particular importance. Many of our congregants do not have any family in Israel and we try to be each other’s security-net in sickness and in health. Z. and J. talked about the help they got from their friends with cooking, driving, visiting, running errands, finding information etc. And about the importance of being respectful and discreet, even in this situation. They thanked all who had helped and offered help, now and in the future, dealing with similar, or different, situations. Or as J. put it to me in a conversation, “it’s great to be able to be back on the giving end”. What a sweetheart. I felt we ought to thank Z. and J. for their great generosity in sharing with all of us. It is, in many ways, easier not to talk about cancer and let each patient deal with it on their own. But this magnificent group of ladies chose to speak up and share. They don’t go around talking about the details of what they went through, but neither are they in hiding. For all of us who statistically have a rather big chance of eventually being in the same boat, it’s a different picture knowing that many of the women surrounding me at my weekly Sabbath prayers have survived cancer. First of all, breast cancer is an illness that a large majority of women survive. Second of all, if it happens, you don’t have to spend energy on hiding your sickness. Third of all, food that is good for you can still be really yummy.


Noomi Stahl