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The Fourth H: What My Brain Tumor Taught Me

October 24, 2019 | by Rivka M. Conway

Headache. Heartbreak. Hospital. But then there was a fourth: Hope.

Headache. Heartbreak. Hospital.

These three words summed up my life for almost seven years from when I was diagnosed in 2011. But then, there was a fourth: Hope.

Just a few short years ago, I was one of the crowd, young and carefree, perfectly healthy. Then I had an innocuous headache, which turned out to be a symptom of a brain tumor. And before I knew it, I was undergoing complex head scans, then brain surgery and subsequent radiotherapy, followed by chemotherapy.

It was an arduous time in my life. As a single girl, I watched my friends move on in life, getting married and building families of their own. And all this time, I didn’t know what the morrow would bring, didn’t know if I could dream of having a family.

I knew I needed to keep my mind off the heaviness of it all, needed to hang on tight to the fourth H. And so, I got busy with my writing. I wove pieces of poetry that portrayed the pain of it all, the hope I was clinging to. And, in celebration of my birthday, I launched a daily kindness campaign, which I called To Kindle a Kindness.

Although I experienced my fair share of miracles, it was not smooth sailing by any means.

“Have you ever noticed how good you feel after doing something kind and positive for others? This project is the perfect prescription for mental health!” I wrote to my friends. “So blow away those cobwebs; keep the blues at bay. Fight depression the ‘kindle a kindness’ way!”

Working on this project helped keep my mind off the chemo, which was already on to its fifth cycle. When I discovered that this dose would take place before Pesach, which meant I’d be chemotherapy-free right through Yom Tov, I saw it as my own Pesach miracle.

The author

Although I experienced my fair share of miracles, it was not smooth sailing by any means. After a bout of seizures, I was put through brain scans again. I remember sitting and waiting for the results. It was 10:30 in the evening when a ward doctor came over and asked if there were any relatives with me. My parents were not with me at the time, so the doctor asked that my father come in. In due time, I learned that they had seen another brain tumor mass on the brain.

In the end, as it turned out, there was no second tumor. A subsequent scan by my neurologist, a senior physician confirmed this relieving news. In the midst of the hardship that is cancer, I received injections of God's love, reminders that He’s always by my side, even when it didn’t appear that way to my human eyes.

Every round of chemotherapy meant going through another torture session, another bout of side effects. From the low of crying upon taking each pill to the high of hearing that the chemo is working, life was certainly one dizzying merry-go-round. Finally, finally, it was decreed that my turn on this ride was over.

And now, when I sit here reflecting with wiser eyes than before, I realize what a gift every aspect of life – even something as ominous as cancer – is.

How many times do we pray mechanically, without much thought, mindlessly thanking God for the gift that is health and even life itself? When a person’s life is on the line, prayer takes on a whole new meaning. When illness strikes, we feel vulnerable, swept adrift by the turbulent waves. Because I was blessed to have the storm subside, I have the opportunity to look back with an enriched perspective.

The operation to remove my tumor left me with a numb leg and poor vision. Only now do I see what a gift it is to simply walk without feeling numb. Did I ever stop to appreciate that before? Why do we only appreciate what we have lost when it has been taken away?

Why do we only appreciate what we have lost when it has been taken away?

Because I realized how healing it was for me to stay positive, I decided to count my miracles even in the bleakest of times. When we’re looking out for miracles, we simply feel so loved, so taken care of. One of the miracles I appreciated was that after being warned by the doctors of the various side effects of chemotherapy, including nausea, I was grateful that they did not actually occur after one of the rounds. I was able to go about my day while on chemotherapy pills, not feeling too bad. The pills made me feel slightly nauseous but they were bearable when counteracted by an anti-nausea tablet. Chemo pills rendered the tumor in my brain dormant without causing too much damage to the rest of my body. I saw that as a clear miracle.

How did I cope with the uncertainty that the fragility of life brought me? Intellectually, we knew there isn’t a test from God that we can’t overcome, but how does this translate into action?

I constantly remind myself that God is the true Source of healing. He is the Rofei kol bassar, Healer of all flesh. Doctors are only the messengers; God can bring the salvation at any time, any place, and through any means.

Prayer is the Jewish people’s battle cry and strength in all situations. Our response is to cry out and proclaim Shema Yisrael. I remember lying on the examination table for my very first scan, petrified, frantically praying, not knowing what to expect, crying out ‘Shema Yisrael’ – Almighty hear my cry, only You can help me. Every time I took my medication, I’d remind myself of Who can truly help me, with a short prayer: sheyehei eisek zeh li l’refuah ki Rofei chinam atah, May it be Your will that this activity bring healing to me, for You are the free Healer.”

The human body is an amazing miracle made by the one and only Designer Above. While some only appreciate this once they’ve had a health-related issue and are need of healing, we can come to this realization even in a state of health. Focusing on the fragility of life may frighten us, but it leads us to appreciate the gift that is health.

Reprinted with permission from Wellspring Magazine

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