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Jewish Journal

Learning From Cancer

by Rabbi Steven Z. Leder

May 10, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Cancer is a plague of biblical proportions, a smiting, a reckoning, a reminder. "Jonah" from "The Woodcuts of Jakob Steinhardt."(Genuart Co., S. F., 1959)

Cancer is a plague of biblical proportions, a smiting, a reckoning, a reminder. "Jonah" from "The Woodcuts of Jakob Steinhardt."(Genuart Co., S. F., 1959)

This week's cancer phone calls:

Susan, my wife's best friend, age 47 -- husband, two children 9 and 12 -- stomach cancer, chemo, husband really scared. As she helps Susan choose a wig, my wife remembers her own cancer. She is really scared, too.

Julie, age 40 -- husband, two children 5 and 3, endocrine cancer, chemo, clinical trial after clinical trial, constant pain, no sleep, cancer still growing.

Stuart, age 72 -- brain cancer, radiation, hard to remember things, but he remembers the doctors said he's got six months to two years.

Paul, age 41 -- wife, 3-year-old daughter, soft-tissue cancer, surgery, chemo, radiation, mother and stepmother already dead from cancer, brother on last-chance experimental treatment.

Sarah's mom Bette, 71 -- husband, two grown children, lung cancer, surgery next week, then chemo, then ?

Cynthia, age 35 -- husband, a 3-year-old and an infant daughter, aggressive breast cancer, surgery, chemo.

Chloe, age 12 -- leukemia, died a few months ago, twin brother, little sister, mom and dad need checking up on.

Next week, new names, more calls, more scans, needles, hair loss, radiation burns, nausea, tubes, scars and trembling. Cancer is a plague of biblical proportions, a smiting, a reckoning, a reminder -- against which I stand armed with nothing but my phone, my prayers and a hospital-clergy parking pass. I used to think of the rabbinate as an opportunity to teach the art of living; cancer makes it every bit as much about the art of dying. But of course, they are one and the same. Whoever said death teaches life was right. That's one of the things being around so many people with cancer has taught me. Here are some others:

Woody Allen was right. The single most important thing in life is "showing up." When someone you know has cancer -- show up. A card, a call, a visit, another card, another call, another visit, then another and another and another. It matters -- a lot.

There are no answers. Often people ask me what to say to their friends or family who have cancer. There are no answers to the chaos that is cancer. There is nothing to say except "I am sorry. I am here. I love you." Then listen. That's enough.

"Why?" is the wrong question. Why me? Why her? Why would God do this? One way or another, all "why" questions lead to blaming the victim or God. No one deserves cancer, and God doesn't pick and choose who gets it.

"How?" is the right question. Whether it's you or a loved one that has cancer, it's an opportunity to get serious about your life. How are you going to live? How are you going to use the precious time allotted to you to flourish on earth?

Exercise. Eat right. Don't smoke. Get checked -- you know where. Do everything you can to stay healthy, then remember there's only so much you can do.

Praying helps. I don't think praying to God cures cancer, because I don't think God gives people cancer in the first place. But I do know that prayer unlocks tears and hidden sorrow. Prayer pierces isolation, surrounding you with the swaying, songs and comfort of your people. Prayer is hope.

Is it urgent or important? Most of us spend our time on urgent matters: solving problems, meeting deadlines, creating new initiatives, pushing our children, filling our days scurrying in traffic from appointment to appointment. People who face the possibility of an early death can't afford to confuse what's urgent with what's important. Neither should the rest of us.

Slow down.

Listen bravely. People with cancer are worried about dying, and they need someone to worry about it with them. Be willing to listen, no matter how sad it makes you. This is real friendship.

While it has some important lessons to teach, mostly, cancer sucks.

Next week there will be more calls. More questions for which there are no answers. What can I do? What can any of us do but reach out, listen, feel, and face the profound and simple truth that life and love are only ours for a while? We're each only given a day at a time -- make this one matter.

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