Breast Cancer and My Spiritual Journey
I went to Shabbat services this morning for the first time in months. My long absence wasn’t an intentional decision. In fact, I only became aware of the ‘decision’ recently.
A cancer diagnosis affects so much more than you think it will. Of course I expected the physical challenges. And it came as no surprise when I found myself emotionally drained. What I didn’t recognize for either of my two diagnoses was the impact cancer had on my spiritual life.
Living Jewishly has been important to me since childhood. Through the years it has meant very different things, yet has always been an integral part of who I am. I grew up in a Reform Temple. My husband, now a committed Jew, grew up in a Christian home. We have spent time in both Conservative and Orthodox communities. Those varied experiences have made us very sensitive to both the way we practice and our relationships with G-d and community.
During my first diagnosis, I instinctively turned to faith and spirituality. I went to synagogue, spoke with G-d, wore an amulet with Jewish text and even received a healing ‘bracha,’ or blessing, from a rabbi. My community and my faith were a large part of my recovery. I drew strength from what had always been important to me.
Seventeen years later, at the time of my second diagnosis, without even realizing it, I shut down spiritually. In retrospect, it was as if a switch was flipped. I withdrew from my community. I stopped attending Shabbat services and drew little joy from holidays and Shabbat.
Navigating cancer places unique pressures on not just the patient, but the family. A medical crisis can not only bring family together; it can also highlight differences. In my family, with our joyful and carefully constructed religious life, changes of any type were a challenge that needed to be addressed. Were the changes I made permanent? How would they impact my family? Were they actually helping me deal with my diagnoses?
I realize now, both from the benefit of time, and from the conversations I have had with other cancer survivors, that diagnosis can make a person spiritually fragile. When you are diagnosed you may look to find meaning in the experience. That may mean drawing closer to faith, changing the way your faith is expressed, or turning away completely. It may be an intentional decision, or something you realize in retrospect. Maybe I was mad. Maybe I needed every ounce of strength I had to deal with my treatment. What I know now, healthy and long past treatment, is that my life is missing something.
Jewish observance and commitment has always been an active conversation in my home so I am not sure why it took me months to realize the changes that occurred at my second diagnosis. Now that I am aware of what I have lost, I have made myself a promise to fight my way back to something that has always brought me joy and comfort. I am not sure where I will find myself in the end, but I know one thing for sure: I’ll be in synagogue next Shabbat!
Sharsheret, Hebrew for “chain”, is a national not-for-profit organization, that supports young women and families, of all Jewish backgrounds, facing breast cancer, at every stage – before, during and after diagnosis.