My Cancerous Pixel
When life seems to overwhelm, I focus on the Big Picture.
My life reads like a fairy tale. Firstborn child to two loving parents, raised in middle America, never wanting for anything, blessed with five younger brothers. We made Aliyah to Israel, as a family, in 1991. I graduated high school and enlisted in the Israeli army where I served for two years. After the army, I enrolled at Ben Gurion University of the Negev where I earned a degree in physical therapy.
Nearing my graduation, I met the man of my dreams, all the way in Australia, on an online dating website. We married and settled into an amazing community in Bet Shemesh, Israel. We were blessed with five beautiful children. I chose to be a stay-at-home-mom and was lucky to have a husband who supports and embraces it. I'm "the picture of health," a fit mom who enjoys running and maintains a healthy nutritious eating lifestyle. Perfect, right?
In 2011 I had a rare tumor removed from my parotid gland. Then, several months ago, I began to suffer from vague symptoms – fatigue, morning sickness and nausea. After a wild goose chase for answers, an ultrasound of my neck forced us to focus on a thyroid growth. I had a biopsy which showed the growth to be benign. But in the meantime I felt worse and worse. If my thyroid was functioning properly, why was I feeling so down?
Although I was eating right and exercising, I was crawling out of bed each day.
Over the next few months, I suffered debilitating exhaustion that had me crawling out of bed each morning with dread for the day. All the routine blood tests produced mostly normal results, and when mega-doses of vitamins didn't provide any relief from symptoms, I turned to diet and exercise. Even though I was eating less, exercising, and limiting my calories, I felt increasingly horrible. That alone was depressing and made me doubt my symptoms. Was I becoming overwhelmed with my motherly duties? Was I lazy? Depressed?
I'll share a secret: As soon as we knew my thyroid was fine, my husband and I were hoping to conceive our sixth child. Each month, my “baby hopes” were inspired and encouraged by the terrible nausea, morning sickness, fatigue, and missed periods as possible pregnancy symptoms. Yet despite my spending a small fortune on home pregnancy tests – which all came up negative – my tummy became uncomfortable, bloated and round.
One day I experienced spotting, and at that moment I understood I was in immediate danger. My husband had gone to work, early, so I rushed to the doctor on my own. Never having met me before, the ob/gyn wanted a full medical background and history before examining me. Surely, he figured he was about to confirm an early pregnancy, implantation bleeding, or perhaps nothing at all.
When he finally took a look on the ultrasound, I saw it in his eyes. Something was terribly wrong. He told me that I’d need to rush immediately to the emergency room.
With my husband over an hour away at work, I called and told him to come home right away to watch our children as I drove myself to the emergency room for further tests. In my heart, I already knew that disaster had landed... on me, in me. Somehow I just knew. I’d mumbled my fears only to those people so close to me that I could allow my despair to show, and now I felt I was nearing a confirmation.
An ultrasound and CT confirmed catastrophe. Enormous masses on both ovaries had spread throughout my abdomen and into my liver. I had to share the news over the phone with my husband and I don’t think he could even process it until many days later. We were both functioning on auto pilot.
Three days later, a team of doctors at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem removed all the tumors. When the doctor came out of surgery, my family received the glum news: the liver masses were cancerous. My poor husband had to confront the possibility of advanced stage 4 cancer and a painful and difficult road… leading to a future without me.
About 20 minutes later, after consulting with a world acclaimed CT expert, the doctor confirmed that the three liver findings were all hemangiomas which are benign clusters of blood vessels. Stage 4 had been taken down to stage 3!
The cancer in me was spread just enough to make me a Stage 3, yet the miracle was that the surgeon was able to remove all visible signs of tumor so I'm cancer-free, with a chemotherapy regimen to make sure any microscopic traces are wiped out.
My initial reaction was shock, but contemplative. I have learned that when we have a problem, all we can see is the zoomed in version of our picture; crisis, suffering, pain, worry, fear, anxiety, anger. Sometimes we're so focused on one tiny pixel that we don't realize what a small part of life it actually is. Usually a crisis or a problem reflects a stage, something temporary that in days, weeks or months will pass. Every parent experiences these stages while raising babies and toddlers: colic, teething, babbling, crawling, cruising, walking. And before you know it your child is becoming a Bar Mitzvah or even getting married. Where did the time fly? Sigh.
When people hear that a young mother, like me, is diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer it's very shocking. But I've been very open in sharing my story. In doing so, I've opened a door and put down a welcome mat for many people. Many people have approached me these past few months with very personal stories of their own illnesses, and this has afforded me so many wonderful opportunities for kindness and love.
When I zoom out of the big picture and let all the tiny pixels come together, I can see that I’ve gained a lot in this way.
It is said that the word "but," placed in the middle of a sentence, somehow cancels out everything else said before. As in: “My life is so blessed and wonderful, but unfortunately I became sick with cancer.” Does cancer mean that I'm no longer blessed? Did cancer come into my life to smite my blessings? Why did I get cancer? Why me? Was I not kind enough? Not generous enough? Not awake enough? Not thankful enough for all that I have?
The question that every person asks at one time or another is: If God is great, and we have unconditional faith and belief, why do people suffer? Do bad things happen to good people? Am I bad? Did I not do enough to satisfy God? Maybe I got sick because I have a bad gene or a bad attitude. Or maybe it's just fate.
When I got sick, I reached out to my family, friends, and community. I made my diagnosis public from day one on Facebook and in a blog that I maintain. I immediately received an outpouring of kindness. My family is constantly at my side. My friends and community encircle me, my husband and our children.
We live in a community within a community. Our friends from the neighborhood, and two other communities that we are friendly with and participate in, formed an army of people volunteering to cook and bake delicious and healthy meals for me and my family. These meals continue to arrive in my kitchen every day that I have chemotherapy and for the week and Shabbat thereafter.
On the day before starting chemotherapy, I needed to say goodbye to my long hair. So two friends accompanied me to the hair salon where we celebrated my hair being braided into a rope of hair to be donated to make a wig for child cancer patients.
The quilt keeps me physically warm and so much more for my soul.
One of the things that has touched and inspired me the most was an act of love and support by six talented and spiritual women from Bet Shemesh, who decided to make me a chemo quilt. In a very short amount of time, they chose fabric, designed, cut, pieced, sewed, bound, and quilted a very special quilt. It's pink, green, and warm, and covered in hearts. It’s become a constant companion during my chemotherapy sessions – keeping me physically warm and so much more for my soul.
Women from around the world and in Israel, who’ve already experienced the type of journey I'm on, are my new sisters, sharing their love and support. I feel happy and loved like I have never felt before.
I look at myself and my life and I have to ask: Why? How has my blessed life continued to be a bright and hopeful journey with cancer?
Open My Eyes
When I was formed in my mother's womb, God gave me many things, He gave me green eyes and brown hair. He gave me gifts and talents. He gave me my path and He knew where that path would lead. If we believe with full faith, we know that everything is God's will. Cancer is part of God's creation.
Now that I have experienced cancer and feel my mortality, I am more “awake” than ever before. Miracles happen every single day to every one of us – yet we don't always see them. Now I feel as though I can open my eyes and see. You might think it's amazing or inspiring but I'm just a vessel. The inspiration is flowing because my family, friends and community are kind and good. Perhaps this cancer was put on my path to invoke and facilitate the kindness, goodness and prayers of everyone around me. I believe in my heart that everything happens for a reason.
I've thought a lot about how I'm going to greet cancer as a turning point – how it will change my life and how I want to impact others. Beginning a journey where I'm actually fighting for my life is on the one hand petrifying, but also spiritually awakening. I remind myself that on Rosh Hashanah on last year, I was written in the Book of Life because, hey, I'm still here. Now, this Rosh Hashanah, I was handed a clean slate, and what is ultimately written has been all up to me. That's the situation for all of us. I decided to live my life as a kinder, better person and reflect all the kindness that is being shown to me.
As I experience cancer as a new part of me, a lot of things have suddenly become much clearer. While I was a happy person before my diagnosis, I feel that happiness is being redefined. I feel closer to God and that He is giving me a gift of rediscovery.
What is the secret to happiness? It's about accepting what you have, enjoying every drop you can squeeze out of it, and not looking left or right at anything else. When you love and appreciate yourself, your family, your friends, and genuinely love everything that God put on His beautiful earth, you will be happy. Love means acceptance of every flaw and imperfection in every single moment and place in my life. When acceptance, forgiveness and love fill my life to the brim, I just don't have room for all that noise called anger, sadness, envy and regret.
Having this Big Picture in front of me allows me to see hope and a cure.
I have a very tall mountain in my path and it's an immensely painful life challenge. If I stand back and view my Big Picture I can see the peak in the distance. Along the way there are many meaningful signposts – foremost the people I love, and who care about me, too. The jagged cliffs on my mountain are also covered in God's creations and miracles. Having this Big Picture in front of me allows me to see hope and a cure.
Cancer forced me to be the mom that I am to my five children. I look at them and my heart swells with love, pride and yearning to devour every single precious moment with them. I no longer have a womb to embrace. The core of my fertility, seeds of life, diseased and threatened my existence. It’s difficult to come to terms with that reality and fully grasp and accept it. If I can be so bold as to continue my conversation with God – and I will - the discussion will be painful and on this point I’m not ready for it today.
I'm 36. I was the poster girl for good health and yet I, happily married mother of five young children, have joined a new club that no one wants to be a member of, the chemotherapy club.
Yet I continue to smile and enjoy. I accept cancer as part of my journey which was given to me along with many beautiful blessings. Although cancer is the last thing I ever wanted to deal with, right now I am at the absolute highest peak of love and enthusiasm for life. I am overjoyed to be here. I'm scared about the future, yet I feel more loved, embraced and optimistic than ever before. I feel more love and joy for my family and friends, and I'm more in love with my husband than ever before. I simply don't have room in my life for anything else besides what gives me strength.
Cancer has awoken me to a celebration of life. For while that one “cancerous pixel” seemed like a disaster, when I zoom out to the big picture, I realize it’s just another part of the magnificent, gorgeous gift of life.
The author’s Hebrew name is Erika bat Chava Ehta.