No Surprises

No one likes surprises…unless it’s a surprise party, but let’s face it, that’s only because it’s a party! Trust me, #AfterCancer, we want NO surprises. And the good news is, thank God, so far…no surprises.

Well, that’s the good news…and the super annoying news too! I believe very firmly that my “job” is to share and to teach about cancer, so that is what I will continue to do. So today…#AfterCancer Surprises That Are Not Surprises:

1. High Cholesterol. I’ve been eating healthier than ever before in my life. I’ve been exercising 4-5 times a week for the past several months. And yet, my cholesterol is higher than it’s ever been. But my doctor says, “I’m not surprised – this is a typical post-chemo, post-menopausal reaction.” Lovely.

2. Skin Ailments. What started as a few bumps on my left hand has now spread all the way up my arm into full-blown eczema. I have a cream that I use but it still itches all day and all night. It’s a living nightmare, but at least it’s a LIVING nightmare! And of course, the doctor says, “I’m not surprised – this is just a result of the chemo.” Again, such fun.

3. Anxiety. Have I not talked about anxiety yet? Haha. Just kidding. I am more in touch – literally – with my body every day, constantly checking, wondering. I stress about dates, I worry about scans. To be honest, the anxiety has been better in the last week, thanks to medication and the clean scan (not to mention my supportive family…and a great therapist!), but it’s still there, and probably always will be. I mentioned this to my doctor today, and his response? “No surprise.”

Ok, so let’s keep it at no surprises. I guess I’m ok with that.

Reclaiming April

April 13, 2001 – my father z”l was diagnosed with cancer.

April 22, 2015 – I was diagnosed with cancer.

April 6, 2016 – seven months after completing chemo, I had a clean CT scan!!!! (and April 7th is when we finally got the good report)

So now we breathe. And, of course, we thank God, the ultimate Healer. For me, this moment feels celebratory in a way that I was not ready for last August when I finished chemo or last October when I had my initial clean scan. I am finally breathing, finally exhaling.

I was sure we were anticipating bad news so I kept my “scanxiety” relatively quiet. To be honest, I’ve been waiting for April 6th ever since we scheduled it back in January. That’s a really long time to wait, nervous energy building up, feeling my body for lumps or bumps, twinges, or whatever…none of which were actually there (thank God). As Passover approaches, it’s as if I’ve been in a dark place, my own personal Egypt. The Hebrew for Egypt, Mitzrayim, actually means narrow place, and that’s what life has felt like. There was “before April 6th” and “(hopefully) after April 6th.” Today feels like the first day of the rest of my (God willing long and healthy) life!

The 30 hours between the scan and the results were the most excruciating ever: begging (no, commanding) the radiology office to read the scan faster, calling my doctor’s office to find that he was out for the day, and driving everyone around me crazy. My body reacted to the stress in all kinds of “fun” ways. And I learned a lot about our medical system, such as how I should have requested the doctor order the scan STAT so it would be read quickly. There was even a glitch with insurance (surprise, surprise) and due to a form that was hard to read, the tech almost thought she didn’t need to scan my chest (even though that’s where the tumor was). So it has been challenging, to say the least.

I am still living in the unchartered (for me) territory of life #AfterCancer. Remember that John Mayer song “Your Body is a Wonderland”? Well, these days, I feel like my body is the haunted mansion at Wonderland. Post-chemo surprises continue to appear and probably will forever, and while I’m grateful to the life-saving treatment, I am scared and unable to anticipate what’s to come. Of course, all I can do is take it one step at a time, day by day, and so that is what I will do.

For now, I am reclaiming April. Historically it has been a rough month for me (and my family). Every year as I pack away the Passover dishes, I remember Pesach 2001 when we packed away the dishes, just hours after my father’s diagnosis, and we had only dread as we thought about the future. Last Pesach when I put the dishes away, I had no idea that I was already sick, and that just a few weeks later my whole world would change. This year I am going into April ready to leave the dark place, the fear, and (most of) the anxiety (well…until the next scan). Let April bloom with new hope and possibilities!

This clean scan comes as we begin the new Hebrew month tonight of Nisan, the month that brings Passover, the holiday of our freedom. In fact, two weeks from tonight when we sit down at our Passover seder (OY, YES, PESACH IS TWO WEEKS AWAY!!), it will be April 22nd, the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis. I am thrilled that these days are colliding. This year Pesach will truly be the holiday of freedom.

Thank God, Shehecheyanu – for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this day. Feeling so very grateful and so very #GarberStrong! Have a HEALTHY April and a good new month of Nisan, and, for those who celebrate, a meaningful Passover!

Menopause

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Warning: this is some of the most personal stuff I’ve ever shared publicly. I’m doing this because I want to continue to be a teacher and to show some of the less-known things about cancer and its after-effects. But please only read if you want to know a whole lot more about me.

And with that, here’s my latest on Kveller!

January 21, 2016

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Back in October, when I saw my oncologist for my post-chemo pet scan follow-up, when he officially declared me to have “NED: No Evidence of Disease,” we made a follow-up appointment for today, January 21, 2016. I put the appointment in my calendar, as I do every appointment, but this one was circled in my heart, engraved in my brain.

January 21, January 21, January 21.

It’s a big deal to go from seeing the oncologist almost daily (or at least his office) for 6 months and then to not see him for 3 months. And while I haven’t seen him, I have thought about January 21st often. I have come SO close to calling and demanding an earlier appointment. I have lived with constant anxiety and fear, feeling for bumps that aren’t there, rubbing the place on my chest where the “dead” tumor still sits. I don’t know if it’s PTSD or just to be expected (thank you to the kind person who just this week suggested my fears were because I am human!), but I am once again – or still – an anxious ball of nerves. I doubt I’ll know much today – unless, God forbid, the doctor suspects something. Most likely we will set a date – in April as planned, or sooner if he’s concerned – for my next follow-up CT scan. And then once again, we will wait, Scanxiety and all. (cute word, right? yeah, um, no)

Despite the incredible anxiety I have had since that appointment in October, these past three months I have lived (to my knowledge, and please, God, let it be true, and let it continue!) cancer-free. CANCER-FREE. And thank God, I have truly lived. I have returned to full-time parenting my beautiful children and to being a partner to my incredible husband. I have returned to work and, with passion, to the career that I love. I have participated in a Livestrong program through our local YMCA – twice a week spending an hour with 6 other cancer survivors at a gym with a personal trainer – the support has been incredible and I’m feeling stronger every day.

I know that I could get bad news, God forbid, at any time. I realized recently that my diagnosis last April came as such a surprise (I had no symptoms and I wasn’t looking for anything when I was diagnosed) so that fear of a new surprise is constantly lurking. As someone said to me once, cancer doesn’t hurt. So that has me even more worried that I might be symptom-free and yet bad things could be happening. But I also know that I could, God forbid, be hit by a bus randomly. We all could. One never knows. We can live with that fear. Or we can live…with that fear. As hard as it is, I am trying to live, allowing that fear to be there but keeping the space between living and fearing, and hoping to widen it a bit with every new day.

So what if, God forbid, there is bad news down the road? Well, what if for each of us? I would like to think that since I began my true recovery in October, I have been smelling the roses a whole lot more than I used to. I have been able to celebrate true friendships and the miracles that are my mother and sisters, to hug my precious boys and to really engage with them as the big boys they are becoming, and to be present in my calling as a rabbi. I have been privileged to reciprocate the incredible support my husband gave me by truly supporting him in his new endeavors. I have been living, loving, and laughing.

Shehecheyanu – thank you, God, for enabling me to reach January 21, 2016. Please God, may it all just continue.

Buh Bye 2015!!!

While it was the year of reaffirming how incredible my family is, and how supportive my community is, and how truly amazing so many friends can be, let’s face it, 2015 was not my favorite year. But we’re entering 2016 and I pray I’ll be able to put “that whole cancer thing” behind me.

I’m on Kveller today, sharing 16 ways to ring in 2016. Keep it meaningful, joyous, and Jewish (if course)!

Thank you for reading my stories and for supporting me in so many ways. Happy and HEALTHY New Year to all!

Please click here to read.

What Would Peter Think?

imagesHe’d be shocked that I still remember him. He’d be pleased that I care. He’d be tickled pink – yes, I think he’d laugh out loud – to know that his memory moves me. The truth is that his tragic and too early death still haunts me. And the blessing is that his teachings have stuck with me all these many years later.

He was my teacher in 8th grade – that’s some 25+ years ago. I believe I never saw him again – maybe once during high school. I hadn’t thought about him either – “one generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides forever.” (1:4) Until that day, in January 2012, when a friend reached out and told me of the tragedy and asked me to officiate Peter’s funeral. What would he think, I wondered, to know that a student who passed notes in his class and barely paid attention (it was 8th grade, after all), was a rabbi escorting him to his final resting place?

“Vanity of vanities…vanity of vanities: all is vaaaaaaaanity.” (1:1) Yes! That’s what he would think. How absurd that he had died. How crazy that his life had ended. How tragic. How final. How nothingness of nothingness.

But then he’d remember: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die.” (3:1-2) And so he’d realize that his time had come – too quickly, too early – but that there was no sense trying to understand it. There’s life, there’s death, and there’s something in between. Peter lived it – he dramatized it, he enjoyed it, he made it larger than life (and he was larger than life). And then it ended.

And to his grave he would take the words that he taught us and we’d have no better understanding of it, only to live it and make it our own: “Whatever it is in your power to do, do it with all of your might.” (9:10) Live! Learn! Love!

I don’t know much about his personal life; only what I uncovered at the time of his funeral and, more recently, through memories posted by his friends (and especially his theater buddies) on Facebook. So this isn’t as much about Peter as it is about me and all of those he left behind.

After all, he was my teacher for just one year of my life. He had a whole lot more students and I’ve had a whole lot more teachers!

And after all, his was just one of the many funerals I officiated that year. I’ve written eulogies for people I knew much better.

But Peter was my teacher. And I his student. And then Peter was the “met” – the deceased – and I his rabbi. And since Peter didn’t have any children or a spouse, and his parents were deceased, we all became the mourners and I (along with other friends and extended family) became eternally linked – to the date of his death, to the moments of his life, and to the man himself.

Peter was a teacher and an actor. His gifts were those of transmission – sharing a text, interpreting a story, bringing life to characters. Teaching Jewish biblical stories and acting out Shakespearian tragedies have so many similarities, and Peter found them. His gift to the world was one of life, drama, and beauty.

His yahrzeit (anniversary of death) just ended and I recited kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer for the deceased, at each service. I struggle to understand why Peter’s death still impacts me so much and I think it is because of this beautiful text of Kohelet (Ecclesiates) that he taught his students and that is quoted throughout.

Our rabbis have taught, “Set yourself up with a teacher and you will acquire a friend” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Peter was a teacher and a friend to so many, and the impact of his life lives on in each of us.

The book of Kohelet ends: “The end of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear God, and keep God’s commandments – for that is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (12:13-14) And then, because we don’t want to end the reading on a sour note of evil, we repeat verse 13: “The end of the matter, when all is said and done: Fear God, and keep God’s commandments – for that is the whole duty of man.”

I can’t help but wonder if that is what draws me to remember Peter: his legacy to his students, in a world where everything is “vanity” and “nothingness”, where “it is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting” (7:2), is that we should walk on God’s path, forging a relationship with God, with our teachers, and with each other.

His memory continues to be a blessing and an inspiration.

(all verses quoted are references to Kohelet/Ecclesiastes)

Spice Up The Weekend!

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I’m back to writing and teaching and all of the other wonderful things that rabbis do.

Happy to share some thoughts on Kveller today. Hope you’ll take a look.

Shabbat Shalom!

Please click here to read.

Seeking Light #AfterCancer

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They kept telling me that once we got through the terrible summer, the “summer of yuck” as we called it, that I would find light, happiness, and health. They tried to reassure me, as we checked each week of chemo off the calendar, that I was one step closer to relief, to a happy ending, to life after cancer. They promised – everyone promised –

Continue reading on Ritual Well (my first post on their blog!).

(And PS – I wrote this post a few weeks ago. While things aren’t great, I’m not quite as down as I was when I wrote it. Phew!)

#PMA

#GarberStrong

Cancer Games

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It’s like the lovelorn girl who plucks petals on the daisy: he loves me, he loves me not.

Or the contestant on a game show who knows the weight of his next move – door #1 or door #2, one offers a million dollars, the other a goat – and the total randomness of the outcome.

To me it feels as random as the number of petals on that daisy. As weighty as the goat that the poor contestant has to schlep home.

I’m playing the Cancer Games. A game of chance and complete randomness. The stakes are high, the anxiety higher, the reality as far away as you can imagine.

A scenario that happens about twelve times a day: I’m driving alone in my car. Ahead in the near distance I see a traffic light. It’s green. It’s been green for a while. The experienced driver in me knows that it is likely to turn yellow before I get there. And it’s at that moment the “rational me” checks out and “#AfterCancer crazy lady” is in the driver’s seat.

“If I can get through this light before it turns yellow,” I challenge, “Then I don’t have cancer again.”

Say, WHAT?!?!?

Yeah, the Cancer Games.

Random. Irrelevant.

Constant.

I am going through the motions of a return to normal life – and doing pretty well, I think – but I am suffering quietly. These constant deals and bargains with myself (or really, with irrationality), are fogging my view, hindering my healing. My stress level is super high. My anxiety…well, my anxiety seems to have taken up permanent residence as my new best friend.

Every “tight this”, “sore that”, “strange everywhere” terrifies me. I get stuck, hands rubbing over my neck, my chest…has it always felt like that? I seem incapable of hearing my doctor’s words, “cancer free.”

THIS IS NOT A CRY FOR HELP. I promise. Between my husband (my rock, who feels all of my imagined bumps and diagnoses me as “fine” – so glad I married a doctor, even if his doctorate is in clarinet!), my mother and sisters (who allow me to call them while driving so these bargains cease), and my therapist (who has advised me to say “no cancer games!” out loud and to sing “let it go” in my best Elsa impersonation), I’m fine, or I will be fine. I’m the kind of person who needs to get it out there, to name the stress, and then usually I can move on.

No promises on that, but it’s a work in progress.

I share this very personal reflection because I think it’s important to express that #AfterCancer does not mean it’s all done. I realize now that I rushed back to real life too quickly, that the “lying on the couch eating Bon Bons” phase that I never did should have happened at some point. I have healed (mostly) physically but the emotional toll is great and the wounds are still there.

I want desperately to move on, but I’m stuck, my own yellow light telling me, perhaps, to slow down. If only I could see it for just that.

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