The Big C

bananaMy mother, z”l (zichrona l’bracha, may her memory be a blessing), called it ‘the Big C.’ She couldn’t say its real name, Cancer. That would be too much of an admission of its arrival, of the arrival of this dreaded, unwelcome guest. My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer soon after my wedding. The early years of my marriage and of my sons’ babyhoods were marked by worry about how was she doing, how much longer would she be with us, could we do anything at all to reverse the decree, as it felt to us. The doctor gave her less than two years to live; she lived for more than five. Part of her longer survival might have been due to the force of the chemotherapy. My father’s care for her helped, too. A large part was her own desire to live just a bit longer, to see a few more grandchildren born, to dance at a few more simchas.

Unfortunately, I have been impacted by cancer much of my life. In 4th grade, a dear boy in my class died of this disease. Would I get a lump on my leg, too? I used to think. Every ache and pain for the next few years scared me. There was a little girl whose family had come all the way from Israel to the Boston area so she could be treated for cancer. The little girl lived a few more years, but then she too succumbed. As the years rolled passed, I learned of adults who had died of cancer. A friend’s aunt. A friend’s father. An aunt in Israel.

In my twenties, a friend’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember how warm a woman she was. I loved going to her home on Shabbat, the table spread with delicacies, and her warm smile making me feel welcome. Once, I went with my friend and her family on a hike in Maine. Out in the woods, we cooked hot dogs over an open fire. I remember her mother said: “I never ate these before I was diagnosed. I always avoided food like this (hot dogs). But now, what does it matter.” What a sad, sad day it was when we attended her funeral.

Years later, my friend would blame fat. “My mother made everything with fat, fat, fat,” she would say. What kind of fat wasn’t clear. One can only guess (saturated animal fat at the main course, with hydrogenated fat for dessert? With some rancid, overcooked oils thrown in anywhere?) Her father, too, would be stricken; about a year or two before my mother died, her father died of prostate cancer.

How I got stuck on the cancer and nutrition link and continue to follow this issue is a subject for another post. I can only write so much on this topic without feeling emotionally drained.

But I will say this: remember how my friend’s mother never ate hot dogs before she got sick? I gradually came to the opposite conclusion. Giving up hot dogs wasn’t merely enough. The food pyramid that we are taught about nutrition isn’t enough. There’s a lot to know about nutrition, and all our bodies are different.

In memory of my dear mother, here are some of her paintings.

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6 thoughts on “The Big C

  • What a beautifully written account of your painful past with “the Big C.” It’s something far too many of us can relate to. My own mother did aerobic dance class 3x a week, was slim, and ate a very healthy Mediterranean diet. She died of pancreatic cancer that hit her and our whole family like a ton of bricks.
    Sadly, much of cancer’s path of destruction is still a mystery to us. I still believe healthy diet and exercise prevent some cancers, but I hope hope scientists can shed more light on the genetic causes and how to prevent these predispositions.
    I’ve felt a lot of healing from a program called They match you up with someone who’s in the midst of chemotherapy (like a pen pal) and you agree to write them an encouraging card each week. It’s very fulfilling and makes me feel I’m doing something active and positive for someone in need.

  • Jill,

    First, on genetics and nutrition: even if you have the gene for a cancer, nutrition can still minimize your risk. I know this is true for colon cancer.

    Second, you have such a talent for connecting with others! Glad you have found a way to do something positive. I thought if I wrote this post, I would feel better. Instead, I felt drained all day.

    Maybe I’ll just post a recipe tomorrow. If I posted anything about politics, it would just say “whatever.” No need to waste a post on that.

  • What a beautiful post.
    A neighbor of mine just had surgery recently for “C” and she isn’t speaking to anyone and no visitors. We can’t judge, but I call and speak to her daughter and husband. Another neighbor is getting treated and loves visitors.

    a refuah shleimah to
    Menya Liba bat Itta Chaya
    Pnina bat Sofiya Zlata

  • Batya,

    People that get cancer are often in their fifties, sixties, seventies. It seems like it is a “boosha” (shame) on them to get the disease. I feel for your neighbor that can’t let anyone into her pain.

    And a refuah shleimah to a dear friend here who will be having surgery soon.

    At some point, I will do a post on the power of prayer and making a misheberach for someone terminally ill. People say how can you ask for refuah shlayma (complete recovery) for someone about to die… but I say that’s all you have left to do. That’s when the misheberach feels most valuable.

  • I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. I have been in remission since finishing treatment (thank G-d). As difficult as it was to go through, I think it is almost more difficult for family members. It was impossible for me to even tell my mother that I was diagnosed. I couldn’t get myself to say the words; I remember at the time thinking that it felt as if I had a gun and was going to shoot her. Couldn’t do it. My husband had to tell her for me. I owe him forever for that.

    I am very sorry that you went through such a difficult time with your mother. I can see that you and she shared a love for art. Reminds me of me and my mother, who used to paint as well.

  • Gail,

    How good of you to share that with us. I don’t know what it feels like to be a patient and deal with illness.

    Yes, my mother and I shared the art connection.

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