by Sharon Wolman

After I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I realized that people did not know how to relate to me. I would be with my husband, and they would ask him how I was doing instead of talking directly to me. I became aware that people did not know what to say. Some people shied away. Some people called my husband at his office. Some people gave me “The Look.” This look says that you pity me, that you feel helpless and don’t know how to relate to me. “The Look” says you have labeled me “victim,” but I am not a victim.

Six months after my diagnosis, I became president of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, PA. During the High Holy Days, I spoke of my cancer to our congregation. I wore a hat to Rosh HaShanah services but decided to go bare-headed to Kol Nidre services, to let the congregation see the face of cancer. I share with you an excerpt from my High Holiday address:

I began this address with the word change, asking you to change something in your life, to make your life more Jewish and find at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim that sense of change. This is something you can control. But sometimes change is something you cannot control. This past year I experienced a dramatic change in my life. On January 5th I was diagnosed with cancer. I would not be standing here before you without the support, the love and the outpouring from my congregational family. One of the major initiatives on which we are working is the Hineini Committee. Over this past year, nine members of our congregation have been diagnosed with cancer. They need your support as their lives have taken this turn. They may need rides, they may need meals, they may need visits, they may need company, and they may need someone to reach out and hold their hand or give them a hug. You can be a part of this initiative, this sense of being a Caring Community. You can say, “Hineini, Here I am!”

When a member of Shaarai Shomayim was diagnosed with a transitional cell carcinoma three months after my diagnosis of breast cancer, we had several discussions about other peoples’ reactions to our diseases. We co-authored an article for our congregational bulletin to try to explain to the congregation what we were going through and how they might respond to our illness:

Within this last year several people within our congregation have had life altering diagnosis. This has rapidly changed our lives and that of our families.

We would like to share our perspective on our illnesses and give you a little insight into our lives.

We ask that you not abandon us but come closer and support us. We have illnesses that are not contagious. Upon learning of our diagnosis our family and friends have become ever more precious. We have learned the true meaning of appreciating each day and are living to its fullest. We have come to understand that everything happens for a reason. We have identified the stressors that lead to our illnesses and ask you to exam yours in order to lead a healthier lifestyle.

We wish to teach you how to cope and relate to our illnesses. We have looked for the silver lining through our clouded eyes and become whole once more.

We wish that you greet us with “How nice it is to see you!.” Please don’t tell us that we look tired, pale or have lost or gained weight. We don’t have any control over our physicality and this is irrelevant at this point.

If you are comfortable doing so please ask, “What can I do for you?” Please don’t be surprised if we just say “Keep us in your prayers.” Because we are proud, independent people it is sometimes difficult to accept the help that you are now offering.

It is greatly appreciated that people want to bring us meals but at this time food is not always appetizing. Some of us are also on special diets that are difficult to cook and prepare for.

When you try and kiss or hug us please don’t be offended if we turn the other cheek. Our resistance to disease is very low, and we are just trying to maintain our health.

We hope that when you see us you say “Hineini,” here I am, with a smile and warmth in your heart.

I hope I have made Congregation Shaarai Shomayim a more caring place and a place that reaches out to our fellow congregants when they are in need. I am a founding member of a cancer support group within our congregation. I know now the difference between friend and acquaintance. Our congregation has held several workshops titled, “What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say”; I like to think that I contributed something to that.

My wish is that congregations develop cancer mentor programs so that a congregant who is diagnosed with cancer will have someone who has already walked that walk, knows how to listen, and can validate their feelings in a very non-judgmental way. A Survivor’s Perspective on Being a Caring Community We cannot forget that cancer is both physical and emotional. Not only does a newly diagnosed patient need to know about hydration, nutrition, fatigue, side effects of medications. He or she needs to feel a sense of community. As I said in my High Holiday address, “I would not be standing here before you without the support, the love and the outpouring from my congregational family.”

Sharon Wolman is a member of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, PA.

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