Breast cancer amplifies awareness of spirit, friendship

The first friend I told after getting my breast cancer diagnosis took my hand and said, "Judy, the next six months are going to be the hardest of your life. But they are also going to be the deepest learning. You are going to have to learn to love yourself more than you ever have before."

She was right. I'm learning not to evaluate myself by whether my house is messy or neat (guess which it is), or what I'm writing (grocery lists, mostly). I've even had to stop evaluating myself on whether I, personally, pick my children up from school, or supervise their baths, or read their bedtime stories.

I look in the mirror and see frizzy gray hair, I rejoice. I'm thankful that, unlike many patients at the oncology center, I've got some after finishing a six-month course of chemotherapy. I'm still struggling to accept the body with a bumpy scar-crossed plain where a breast used to be. But I say the Jewish blessing about being made in God's image and remember that a friendly smile, listening ears, noticing and caring eyes are what counts.

Every morning, as I had before I became ill, I say the blessing for sitting on the toilet. (Is Judaism the only religion so down-to-earth to recognize this humble act as a profound and complex miracle, worthy of blessing?) On days when my innards are battered by chemo, I focus on the end of the blessing, affirming that the Source of Life "heals all flesh and makes miracles." Other days I bless the miracle of normality.

I have been very, very lucky, on two levels. First, my cancer turned out to be contained. Now that I'm through chemotherapy, I should be able to return to normal. But chemotherapy has forced me to ask what I want normal to be. What commitments do I want to take on?

For six months I've saved what energy I had for my own healing, and my family. Now I have to ask how much I want to preserve of this blessed space that has come into my life along with the fear and discomfort? How much time do I want to reserve for meditating, walking, listening to tapes, enjoying the shenanigans of my kids?

Second, I've been lucky to have wonderful network of support. Breast cancer survivors freely shared their secrets and their strengths. Neighbors and members of my Jewish community carted my kids to school, "babysat" me around the clock when I came home from surgery, shopped for our food and supplied us with home-cooked meals. While healing poisons dripped into my veins, what a lift it was to have a friend, a high-powered computer engineer, spending her day off sitting next to me, breast-feeding her baby and talking as if over the kitchen table.

The week before my mastectomy I realized I needed a ritual to prepare me for this challenge to my sense of self. I culled biblical readings concerning breasts– from Song of Songs and the story of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel — and asked six of my closest women friends and my husband to participate.

My friend, Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer, led us in a discussion of a Talmud passage about what was really essential in life. Was it our hands to work? Our eyes to see? Our breasts to suckle? We ended up agreeing with the rabbis of 1,500 years ago that the true essentials were friends to share your joys and troubles, an open heart to give and receive love, and an open mind to continue to learn and grow. Buoyed by the hugs and blessing of my friends, sustained by our songs, I entered surgery the next morning truly prepared.

I learned lots of other things in this journey: For example, don't try to hide troubles from your kids. They might not know exactly what's going on, but they know there's something. And it's what they don't know that really scares them. One of the best pieces biggest spiritual challenge. Reconstructionist Rabbi Devora Bartnoff, who had been very helpful to me when I first got my diagnosis, died after a 2 1/2-year struggle with breast cancer. I was terribly angry with God.

This was a 44-year-old woman with four children ranging in age from 4 to 12, a woman who had done her best to make lemonade from the undiluted lemon of advanced cancer. She gave seminars for chaplains on how to deal with seriously ill patients. She was organizing a conference on healing and Judaism. The stories of her plucky humor were legion.

Recalling her Orthodox mother, who had also died of cancer at a young age, and saw it as punishment for some unknown guilt, Devora joked, "I thank God every day that I don't believe in the kind of God who makes selections."

Every morning when I said the healing prayer, I had added a fierce plea for Devora's life. Now I wondered: What did prayer mean if no reprieves were granted? I called Rabbi Dayle Friedman, who had led a healing service for Devora. She told me that driving home from Devora's funeral, she had passed by blocks of azaleas and dogwoods in riotous bloom. Even in the midst of my grief, I can't help praising God for the dogwoods, she said.

I understand then that Devora had won her battle with cancer, even though she had died. She had never let it defeat her. She had lived the time allotted to her fully, with courage, humor and generosity. And I could use Devora's legacy — a weapon more powerful than chemotherapy or radiation.

All of us humans will die, whether at a young age or at 120. But like Devora, I can see in every experience, no matter how bitter, an opportunity for learning and growth. I, too, can use prayer, not to bribe God, but to remain conscious of my blessings: to cherish the sunlit trees, the ripe tomatoes, the child on the lap, the precious seconds, minutes, hours of this life.