Nine years ago, on the fast of Tisha B’Av, 5770, on the saddest day of the Jewish year, I received news that paralleled the mood of the day. Out of the blue, I was newly diagnosed with breast cancer. My personal situation mirrored the historic catastrophes that occurred, repeatedly, to the Jewish nation, on this specific day of fasting and mourning.
Yet it is prophesied that 9 Av will be transformed, in the future, into a day of feasting and joy, of greater kindness and tolerance. Nine years later, thank God, I am fine and living life. In gratitude, each year I’ve tried to use the day as an opportunity to explore ways to better our human interactions. Perhaps this small effort can be part of our roadmap toward recreating the day and healing our divisions.
Most of us mean well in our interactions with others. However some situations are more challenging, such as how to deal with a person with a serious disease. I want to dedicate this Tisha B’Av to learning about how to improve on this. I am sharing the (very blunt) words of a patient with stage 4 cancer.
HOW TO REALLY HEAR AND HELP A PERSON WHO IS VERY ILL:
“I really appreciate all the support that I got…. when I shared about cancer and the dissolution of my marriage, a couple of weeks ago. It shocked me. It shocked me, because I am not used to it.
You have to understand that I don’t mind cancer. If you live with cancer, you have to have a relationship with it—it is part of you. I respect the disease. I have learned from it. I have become myself because of it. But it is a problem for my interactions with the world, because people are scared of cancer. People avoid what they fear.
I hate when people tell me they are sorry about my cancer, because I’m not sorry. And I feel it’s dismissive.
I would prefer if people asked me how I am.
It is a lonely disease.
After I got cancer, I was not the same.
I wanted to be.
I wanted my life to go back to what it was.
I was so lively. I was so lovely.
I was so busy. I was so social.
But I could not do it.
No surprise, I changed.
I was withdrawn during chemotherapy and my world became small. It contracted like starvation. It is hard to get back what is lost. It is more difficult still to begin anew. People visited at first. They sent flowers. The florists prospered.
I tried. So hard. I called. I emailed. I texted. I showed up.
You think people are nice about it? No. Cancer is misunderstood. Everyone says the wrong thing. Which is what they do so much anyway. Then I said the wrong thing back. I could not believe the stupid things people said in an effort to be nice. Telling me about something bad that happened to them that was not cancer, etc. I wanted everyone to just be normal.
I hate when people say, Let me know if there is anything I can do. If you mean it, you just do it. You just show up. You insist. You don’t send an email. You don’t suggest a date in three weeks. People with cancer live now. We only have Today. We have six jobs, because cancer is five. What are you so busy with? What is so big in your life? I may not be seeing you in three weeks.
The nicest thing anyone could do for me is to respond to a text promptly.
For all of my life, I did not have cancer and I did not feel like my colleagues were uncommunicative. But people kind of treat me like I am sick and insignificant now.
But I am not dead.
I don’t feel that way about myself. I feel healthy and strong. I feel good. I don’t understand why people expect something to be wrong. I don’t even know that cancer is what will kill me. If you know someone with cancer, just be there in person, IRL as they say. Cancer is chaos and displacement. I am sorry to be so honest. I hate it. I like myself better when I sound some other way. I sound this way. What can I do? Forgive me. Thank you.”
Despite the fact that the Lemonade Fund mission is to help needy breast cancer patients financially, there is plenty to learn about how to help the sick more sensitively, with words and deeds. Thanks for allowing me to share this with you.
Wishing everyone a meaningful 9th of Av and many years of health.
Shari Mendes, Founder and Director of the Israel Lemonade Fund
The Lemonade Fund is Israel’s only breast cancer emergency relief fund, helping indigent Israeli breast cancer patients with one-time grants to alleviate financial stress during treatment. We have expanded and need your donations more urgently than ever before.
To donate: www.lemonadefund.org/to-donate/
To read more about what we do: www.lemonadefund.org
To watch our short film: https://lemonadefund.org/movie-what-the-lemonade-fund-does/