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Coming Out Of The Cancer Closet (Part I)


Kupfer-Cheryl

In my last column I pointed out certain things people should – or should not do – to keep themselves and/or their loved ones off the Tehillim list. Of course, despite one’s best efforts, whatever Hashem has decreed will take place; yet, we are admonished to do our outmost to “watch over our soul.”To that end, we need to take precautions, educate ourselves and be proactive in taking the necessary steps to protect ourselves. Installing smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, putting up beeping motion sensors near swimming pools, learning how to swim – were some of the things to put on one’s immediate “to do list.”

Most importantly, people must get medical screenings in a timely and efficient manner. This includes blood work (to check for sugar, iron and cholesterol levels etc.), blood pressure readings, mammograms, colonoscopies and whatever else your physician recommends. Sadly, Tehillim has been said for too many people who postponed, delayed or simply never bothered to make the effort or time to get crucial medical examinations.

As I admitted in the column – I was almost one of them. Despite knowing better, I postponed, for three years, going to my gynecologist/GP for my annual checkup.

I want to point out that all my life I was pretty conscientious about getting a yearly physical – I even went to the dentist twice a year. But at that particular time in my life, I was figuratively bloated from years of having to eat the many negative comments and caustic criticism that were dished out to me by too many misguided individuals.

I was very reluctant and too worn out to face disapproval and censure from yet another source – even if it was for my own good.

My doctor was very “machmir” about maintaining a healthy weight, insisting that being overweight shortened one’s life. To that end he would gently but firmly chide his patients to lose their extra poundage. If the scale showed an increase from the previous weigh-in, he would show his chagrin over that unfortunate state of affairs.

I knew from looking in the mirror that he would not be pleased with the number that would come up on the scale.

(Ironically my weight gain may have been caused not so much by over-eating but by the extreme stress and distress that I had experienced on a long-term basis. Stress releases the hormone, cortisol, which can lead to increased abdominal fat,and suppressed thyroid function. (The thyroid regulates the body’s metabolism.)).

Not relishing a scolding, I did not schedule an appointment for three years – until I heard that a friend of mine had uterine cancer. I thought to myself, if a tzaddekes like her was not immune to getting a dreaded sickness, then a lesser creature like me surely wasn’t immune.

And so I swallowed my pride and scheduled an appointment with Dr. Ludwig. When he told me I could sit up, I silently breathed a sigh of relief that I would not have to pay a steep price for stupidly delaying my checkup.

But Dr. Ludwig, being very thorough, was not done. Part of the physical included feeling my thyroid to see if it was lumpy – a possible sign of a malfunctioning thyroid – and a possible cause of weight gain -or loss.

And the sigh of relief was aborted.

I was informed that I had a multi-nodular goiter, which means I had at least two lumps on my thyroid. Two or more lumps often are indicative of an over-active or under-active thyroid. A single lump is more ominous. Statistically only 5% of multi-nodular thyroids are malignant – meaning 95% aren’t.

Great odds – but I didn’t beat them. A follow-up ultrasound led to a biopsy and a diagnosis of papillary thyroid cancer. The good news is this type of thyroid cancer grows very slowly and is very curable.

However, even though thyroid cancer spreads slowly, after a while, even the turtle reaches the finish line and, had I kept on delaying my check-up – rationalizing “valid” excuses for not going – the cancer would have gone undetected, spreading and becoming more invasive. Eventually, I might have ended up on a Tehillim list.

As it was I had surgery – but no chemo. My treatment consisted of swallowing a radioactive iodine pill. Thyroid tissue grabs iodine – I visualize it as a magnet pulling metal – and cancerous thyroid cells not removed by the surgery are killed by the radiation in the iodine they hungrily absorb.

By Hashem’s grace, I never was ill enough pre-and post surgery and treatment to have Tehillim said for me. In fact, people in the Toronto community who know me are probably shocked by this cancer revelation. Even my parents did not know for five years. I was in the hospital for three days – a day less than maternity patients – and in the ensuing weeks, I wore a scarf or a high-necked sweater to hide the give-away U-shaped surgical scar on my throat.

I was very private about my situation because I didn’t feel like a cancer patient.

Honestly, giving birth was much more draining and painful. I never had any symptoms, or discomfort and I healed quickly. I actually thought they mixed up my test results and had mis-diagnosed me. It was like,” If I have cancer, why do I feel so good?” Based on what I saw at the hospital and in the community, cancer-stricken people whose bodies and souls were under brutal assault from both their malignant tumors and their treatments, I did not think I had the right to call myself a cancer patient. I felt like a fraud.

And truthfully, people view you differently when they know you have cancer. They simultaneously admire you for your “courage” or your bitachon or your “grace under fire” – saying they could never deal with it – but they pity you, they see you as a victim. And you make them think of their own mortality – and you become scary. I didn’t want to be unjustly labeled and mis-judged. I had already been down that road in my personal life.

It wasn’t until nine cancer-free years later – including the last four of those years being told I was cured – that I had to admit that perhaps I was a “member of the club” after all. I had a recurrence. The cancer was back.

(To be continued)

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