My Cancer Marathon
In the car the other day- Hannah and Micah were having a conversation about God. They were sharing a class discussion about Lech Lecha from school. The question was- if God called to you, would you do what Abraham did, and leave the familiar and journey to a land that is unknown?
One of their friends had responded that she’s doesn’t believe in God, so she wouldn’t have listened to him.
Micah told me, if he heard God, he would do what God says.
My question is- how do you know when you are being called?
How often do we hear a voice from heaven- “Melanie, Melanie… Its time to leave your comfort zone”
Three years ago, I was in a great place. My children were flourishing, my professional life was thriving, and I was training for the NYC marathon- for the second year in a row.
In January, 2015, I committed to run the NYC Marathon for Sharsheret, a national not-for-profit organization that supports women and families of all Jewish backgrounds, before, during and after a diagnosis of breast or ovarian cancer. I was impressed with the organization, I cared deeply about the cause- and I really wanted to run in the NYC Marathon. It was a perfect match.
And in August- things started to get off balance. I found a small lump in my breast, and wasn’t sure it was anything, so I kept an eye on it. I kept feeling it in the shower and wondering if it was a swollen gland or something else…. And two weeks later, it was still there. I decided I needed to get it checked out….
“Melanie, Melanie—wake up!” this voice was calling to me.
In September of 2015, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Surprisingly enough- the point from initial diagnosis to treatment took a very long six weeks. We navigated the holidays, as we scheduled doctor appointments, explored treatment options, and connected with an oncologist, breast surgeon, and plastic surgeon. And I say WE quite literally- Salomon did not leave my side through this entire process.
My NYC marathon plans were derailed- as I needed to take care of the breast cancer, and get it out of my body as soon as I could. I wasn’t ready to give up my training, so I decided to create a marathon of my own.
October 18, I ran “Melanie’s Marathon” around Denver, accompanied by family and friends, and through the power of Facebook, we raised over $25k to support Sharsheret.
And October 20, three years ago today- I underwent a double mastectomy, to remove the cancer from my body.
This incredible organization, Shasheret, was now carrying my family, and me, across the marathon of a cancer diagnosis.
In Hebrew, Sharsheret means ‘chain’ or ‘connection’. Sharsheret became my link, to other young women with breast cancer, to a plethora of resources, support, and advice along the way. It continues to be a link and a lifeline for my mom— as she still volunteers weekly in their New Jersey office.
Sharsheret provides free of charge, confidential, and tailored responses to each individual they connect.
Since 2001, Sharsheret has responded to more than 120k inquiries.
You might ask— What’s Jewish about Breast Cancer? Why do we need our own organization?
How many of you have been through a breast or ovarian cancer diagnosis?
How many of you are related to someone with a diagnosis?
How many of you know someone who was diagnosed with breast or ovarian cancer?
The statistics are astounding. 1 in 40 women and men of Ashkenazi Jewish descent carries a mutation on the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, compared to approximately 1 in 500-800 in the general population.
BRCA mutations trigger up to an 88% lifetime risk for breast cancer and up to a 45% lifetime risk for ovarian cancer.
Risk of melanoma, pancreatic, and prostate cancers are also increased with a BRCA mutation.
Besides BRCA, Jews have a higher risk of carrying other genetic mutations associated with cancer.
Sharsheret also addresses cultural and religious issues- It has been found that culturally-meaningful support has a strong impact. Studies have indicated that patients whose non-medical needs are met, have better medical outcomes.
Cancer can change a person’s relationship with religion, spirituality, and community, whether someone seeks it out, or suddenly pushes it away. No matter the role religion played prior to diagnosis, shifts in spirituality can be confusing. Sharsheret helps women navigate that path.
I was called to wake up and get through this breast cancer journey, not knowing where I was heading, or what was going to be there when I arrived at my ‘destination’. God could have provided me with a better navigation system- for I never would have foreseen that Koby would have cancer next.
In the scheme of things, my treatment was straightforward. However, I will never truly be through with cancer. I continue to have regular check ups with my oncologist and surgeon. I continue to have physical effects of chemotherapy and the medication I have to take for another 7 years— I am only beginning to understand the emotional impact of cancer on my life, how it affects my self-image, and the ‘me’ that I present to the world. Layered with Koby’s glioblastoma diagnosis and journey- we continue to live in fear of the next health crisis in our family…
As we went through the cancer journey- both mine and Koby’s- the most important thing for us was knowing that we were not alone. We were embraced, and carried by our HEA and the greater Denver Jewish community. I wrote regularly on our Caring Bridge page to friends and family across the world, and while writing helped me sort through the messiness of my thoughts and feelings- it also kept me connected to others.
Sharsheret helped us, as it does for so many families, navigate a diagnosis and path that we never had to know anything about prior. It helped us connect, Jewishly, to a community of peers who weren’t intimately connected to us- but knew the path we were walking. Sharsheret brought me closer to women in our community- who were connected to the organization prior to my diagnosis.
It taught me the power of ‘showing up’ and how it feels to have people show up in our lives. That we don’t have to carry our burdens alone.
Sharsheret also taught me the importance of body awareness, and family history awareness. Could my diagnosis have been avoided? Who knows. What’s incredible is that I detected it early, and knew how to advocate for myself through the health system. I heard the call, and had to respond, even though I had no idea where it was leading me….
Do you hear a whisper beginning to call- Go for yourself- start on this path in the wilderness—-
Now is the time to get educated, and get connected in this chain of Sharsheret.
* Know your family history. Breast cancer and ovarian cancer are not exclusively Jewish
women’s issues; but rather Jewish communal issues. Men carry and pass down BRCA mutations at the same rate as women. Remember, breast cancer is not only a women’s issue. Men get it, too.
Do what you can to eat healthfully, move more, reduce stress, and commit to appropriate screenings.
Speak with your doctor and a genetic counselor to create a personalized screening plan, especially if there is a history of cancer in your family.
And listen, tune in- for you never know when you be commanded to head out on an unexpected journey.
My blessing to you is this- that you will have the self-awareness to heed that call, and trust where the path may lead you.