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After Breast Cancer: Time to Sing a New Song

August 7, 2019 | by Toby Klein Greenwald

Prayer, love and community helped me through cancer.

When you’ve had cancer, your emotional taste buds change everything. A sunset is more brilliant, smells of flowers are magnified, music touches the heart more. So when my daughter sent me a WhatsApp in December, 2017, that she was in the delivery room in a hospital in the Negev, I burst into tears. We have, bli ayin hara, many grandchildren, and I’ve attended some of those births, but I never cried before upon hearing that a daughter was in the delivery room. Yet here I was sobbing uncontrollably.

And I knew why. I didn’t cry for myself throughout the year of my diagnosis, pre-op (neoadjuvant) chemotherapy, operation or radiation. But for any milestone or emotional occasion since then, the floodgates open – this time especially, because we were celebrating a new life and I’m still here.

When I got my diagnosis in November, 2016, I didn’t go into a tailspin. I thought, Thank God, I have healthy children and grandchildren, a loving husband, and I’ve done a lot of good things in my life. I’ve had many students, written meaningful articles and plays, and directed theater troupes and projects that brought joy and healing to others. If God decides I’ve done enough, that’s His call.

With my new granddaughter

I was in the middle of producing and directing a revival of a Biblical musical by our Raise Your Spirits Theatre troupe called Ruth & Naomi in the Fields of Bethlehem, a show, appropriately, about chesed (kindness). The cast, crew and stage moms all stepped up to the plate when they learned about my illness; they, along with my family and close friends, became a loving support group. Every time I walked through the door of the Efrat Community Center, where we held our rehearsals, my cancer disappeared. I felt all the love and support I had given my actresses for 16 years come flooding back to me. On some days, during the chemo treatment period, when I was exhausted, the lead actresses would rehearse in my living room with me reclining on the couch. Once, I fell asleep in the middle of rehearsal and they tiptoed out quietly.

It was important to me to tell the cast and crew about my illness personally. I didn’t want the children in the cast to hear through the grapevine at school. And I wanted them to see me smiling and functioning, even when it became clear that my beret was covering a bald head. They will all have challenges in their lives, I thought, and I want them to see that someone with a difficult challenge can get through it with cheerfulness and faith.

Two days after surgery with Dr. Neta Adler (in white coat),
plastic surgeon, and staff in Hadassah Medical Center.

When my hair began to fall out, I asked a friend to photograph me getting my head shaved at the local beauty shop. Then we took selfies, including one with me looking cool in a fedora and sunglasses.

I got a big infusion of faith from one of our choreographers, an Italian dance and theater professional who was studying, along with her Italian artist-performer husband, to convert to Judaism. Her post-conversion name is Emuna Bracha – Faith and Blessing. She would talk to me about God’s goodness and the fact that He always has a plan, which I knew, but it meant so much to me to hear it from her.

The day she and her husband completed their conversion and got married according to Jewish law was a chemo day for me. A cast member drove me to the wedding. I sat on the side, utterly exhausted, but at one point I took two belly-dancing belts, went into the dancing circle, tied one around Emuna Bracha’s hips, the other around mine, and for five minutes I danced with her. It was my badge of courage. I had decided there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to bring joy to this particular bride. Afterward, I had to sit down and breathe heavily for ten minutes, but it was worth it.

Dancing with Emuna Bracha

I discovered the sisterhood (and brotherhood) of cancer, and I also began quietly giving support to others, just as I received it. I discovered scores of people, in hospitals and elsewhere, who are humbly doing chesed for patients, without fanfare or Facebook postings. At one point, I had my Na’na Playback Theater (improv) actresses act out some of my harrowing stories for me, to help me heal.

During chemo, translating a book for my grandson

There were crises and hardships along the way, beyond the scope of this essay; no one’s cancer story is simple and every patient could write her own book.

Sometimes I wanted to be alone, in the quiet. But I also discovered the value of bikur cholim (visiting the sick). In these days of social media posts, emails and texts – and I did appreciate those messages – it meant a lot to me when friends paused their busy lives or overcame their discomfort and actually came to visit. During a particularly difficult time for me, one friend came on Purim with her daughter, who told her mother afterwards, “I understand now the impact of bikur cholim. When we walked through the door, Toby could not lift her head off the couch. By the time we left, she was sitting up and laughing.”

I treasured every gift – mugs with messages, flowers and plants, books of poetry, paintings, songs, home-made ice cream and gourmet coffee. One neighbor sent over a pot of chicken soup every Friday night for months. After my chemo treatment ended, I told her she could stop. She said, “I’ll wait for the operation.” After the operation, she said, “I’ll wait until after the radiation.” After the radiation, I said to her with a smile, “You know, I have to take pills for five years now,” but finally released her from her incredible chesed.

Dr. Naomi Baum, a psychologist friend of mine, had written a book, Life Unexpected, about her own journey with breast cancer. It became my guidebook. I learned from her book, among other things, that it was okay to say, “No,” to not go somewhere or attend an event if I didn’t have the physical or emotional strength for it. Fern Reiss, another friend, had written The Breast Cancer Checklist, which proved invaluable.

I discovered the power of prayer. My own prayer was usually informal, and more like conversations with God. Rabbi Benjy Levene had given me a Tehillim (Psalms) and another friend had told me it was important to say Psalm 100 every day – Mizmor l’Todah (Song of Thanks). In Rabbi Levene’s Tehillim, there was a citation, by the editor, that this psalm is said to overcome our enemies. I loved the idea that thanking God is the way we vanquish our enemies. When my operation went well and recuperation was quick, I felt that the davening of all my family and friends, actresses and fellow students in the Torah class I attend at Matan, had shaken the heavens.

Thrivatious Group

My pre-op chemo was at Shaarei Tzedek and then I switched to Hadassah for the operation, radiation and follow-up; everyone in the Jerusalem area does radiation there. I loved Hadassah’s internationality. Medical professionals who treated me were from Israel, America, Russia, Canada, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Arabs from the Galil and from the Old City of Jerusalem, and more. My anesthesiologist in the operation was from Romania. I asked her why she chose this profession. She said, “I wanted to be an astronaut but that wasn’t possible in Romania.”

“I’m not a hero. Heroes are individuals who go beyond their capabilities. But this is the only way I know how to live.”

A young neighbor told me that I was her “hero” because whenever she saw me, I was smiling. I’m not a hero, I told her. Heroes are individuals who go beyond their capabilities. But this is the only way I know how to live.

The radiation, which I had heard could be unpleasant, became for me a “high,” due to the words of a friend, literary agent Deborah Harris, who had battled breast cancer five years earlier. She told me, “Radiation was a spiritual experience for me. Every time I got on that table, I imagined God coming down and zapping the bad stuff out of me.” Her comment influenced me to the point that I would get on the table and use that time to communicate with God. It was our special time together.

My husband was with me during every chemo treatment, but I drove myself to radiation alone. My role model was my mother’s cousin, Leatrice Rabinsky. A breast cancer patient some 30 years earlier, she had driven herself to radiation and afterwards to teach. I’d weave along the winding Wallaje bypass road from Gush Etzion to Hadassah every morning at 6:15 am, have my telepathic talk with God, grab a morning latte in the lobby and drive home.

The last day of radiation

At the end of 20 treatments, I felt a letdown, the end of my spiritual journey, but of course, the journey never ends; it just changes. I had many wonderful shlichim – messengers of God. Healers, like Dr. Phyllis Krug, and those from the Yuri Shtern Holistic Center, helped me weather the storm with their dedication, skills and wisdom. I had a female breast surgeon, plastic surgeon and oncologist at Hadassah, and I felt the extra sensitivity of females treating females.

I also had an exceptionally compassionate male ENT surgeon who thought they would have to open my chest to take out my right (non-cancerous) thyroid lobe due to its location (a late-discovered complication that blocked part of my airway), but he managed to do it through the throat. When I told him later, “They call you a magician,” he said modestly, “I just got lucky.” I said, “I had a lot of people praying for me.” He said, “I also pray before every operation.”

The secretaries in the local health fund smoothed the bureaucratic process for me. One of them called me at home one day and said, “I met your husband and asked how you are and he said you’re a little weak; I just wanted to check up on you.” The secretary at an HMO? Only in Israel.

I experienced the deep love and devotion of my husband and children. Most of our children are married and scattered throughout the country with children of their own and busy lives, but they were there for me. After I woke up from my operation, I kept repeating to the two who were present (on rotation), “I have the most wonderful children in the world.”

I heard my daughter whisper to my son, “It must be the anesthesia.”

“It’s not the anesthesia,” I said. “I know I’m repeating myself. But I want to say it again and again.”

Receiving a lifetime achievement award from the ATARA
organization in March, 2018 (Photo by Susan Handelman)

During the treatment and operation period, my creativity had become blocked. I only had patience to read mysteries and watch sitcoms, stand-up humor (thank you, Jeanne Robertson) and dramas. (I discovered that it’s not wise to watch medical shows when one has cancer.) The moment the radiation was over, I felt a burst of new creative energy, more ideas for books and theater projects than I could implement in a lifetime. I continued to work with a friend, Myra Gutterman, on our show Mikva the Musical. I commenced work with a co-writer, Tamar Kamins, on a biblical show on Rebecca.

I also discovered a new sense of gratitude. Every night, before I go to sleep, I say out loud, “Thank you God for my husband, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, my health, for the roof over my head, this warm bed, the food I eat, the clothes I wear, for the fact that I have the opportunity to do creative things…” And if I can’t fall asleep, I visualize the face of every child, their spouse, and grandchild.

I had received my diagnosis on November 28, 2016, which corresponded to the 27th of Cheshvan. In 2017, it fell on November 16. How will I “celebrate” this day, I wondered? Thirteen years earlier I had begun, with a friend, Yael Valier, to collect materials about the anusim (conversos) of Spain, with the goal of producing a musical theater project. My new idea (still in development) was to expand that concept and produce a show about the missing and hidden Jews through the centuries – not just from Spain, but also from the Ten Lost Tribes, like the B’nei Menashe community of India and Jews from Poland, China, Indonesia, Africa and elsewhere who were discovering their faith. On November 16, 2017, one year from the day I was diagnosed, 80 immigrants from the B’nei Menashe community were brought to Israel by the Shavei Israel organization. I knew I wanted to be there.

I drove to the airport and saw them come through the sliding doors – men and women and children, older people in wheelchairs, some who were reuniting with family members after seventeen years. People hugged, sang, danced and cried. I noticed a young woman with a baby girl in a sling. I asked her what the child’s name was. She said, “Chadasha (New).”

I asked her what her own name was. She said, “Shira (Song).” Together, “a new song.”

And I knew then that the name of the show I would write would be A New Song – Melodies and Monologues of the Missing Jews.

And I knew why I had been drawn to this particular event on this particular day.

To remind me that, one year after my diagnosis, I was ready to sing a new song.

The author is a journalist, educator and an award-winning director of five theater troupes. This article is adapted with permission from Jewish Action, the quarterly magazine of the Orthodox Union (summer 2018). The author was the recipient of an American Jewish Press Association Simon Rockower Award for Excellence in Jewish Journalism for this article.


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