Barbara Sofer

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Speaking Engagements

The Human Spirit: For Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah

November 12, 2010


By the time I've walked up Rehov Bezalel, the river of white and pink T-shirted walkers has wound its way through the city. "I took part in the first race in Washington," says my friend Diane, who has raised more than $1,200 from friends abroad supporting her walk. "We were only 5,000 back then."

According to the Jerusalem police, we're 7,500. I feel proud and teary.

Jerusalem has seen so many demonstrations, marches and parades. Usually you can tell with a quick glance who is gathering and why. But never have I taken part in such a mix of Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, newcomers and veterans, teens and seniors, women and men marching shoulder to shoulder, soldier to soldier, in determined solidarity. From Haifa, from Beersheba, from a Druse village in the North, from Judea and Samaria, from the local Arab village of Abu Ghosh, from upscale North Tel Aviv, from factory floors and lawyer's offices.

The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure is a newcomer in the local landscape. For much of the week, while the Old City walls and the Shrine of the Book glowed pink, the events around the race helped us focus on the fight against breast cancer. In the US, pink ribbons are ubiquitous throughout October. Yogurt manufacturers to airlines join the effort to increase awareness and contribute to research. In recent years, the American-based race has gone international. Around the globe, 1.6 million people will have walked or run this year in Komen races.

IN 1978, Susan Goodman, a petite, vivacious and beautiful Jewish woman (I have a friend who grew up with her in Peoria, Illinois) was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was 33, married to her high-school sweetheart and a mother of two. Back then, who had heard of young women getting breast cancer? Her local doctor recommended a minimally invasive treatment and spoke of an easy "cure."

He was wrong. By time she got to the major American cancer centers, her cancer had spread. It was too late for other tools in the oncologists' arsenal of chemotherapy and radiation to do much good. During her excruciating treatment, she felt bad for others who had to endure ghastly conditions of the treatment process. She pledged to do something to improve this when she got well. She never got well.

Her sister Nancy (now Ambassador Nancy Goodman Brinker) promised her to do whatever she could to save others. She established the Susan G. (Goodman) Komen Race for the Cure in 1982 to raise awareness, improve care and direct research money to cure breast cancer. So far, Komen has invested nearly $1.5 billion to the fight against breast cancer, including grants to Israel.

This success notwithstanding, it's hard for a newcomer to get established here. Komen partnered with Jerusalem Municipality and Hadassah to make this one of the 15 countries in which the race takes place. Other prominent women's organizations and health centers – WIZO, Emunah, Na'amat, Tishkofet, Beit Natan and others – committed themselves. The process wasn't easy. October is breast cancer awareness month throughout the world, but here, August is vacation time. September is dominated by holidays. Professionals, let alone volunteers, don't settle down to logistical problems until after the holidays. How would anyone be sure women and men would come out in sufficient numbers? Would everyone agree to sign legalistic waivers in Hebrew, Arabic and English that they were well enough to walk five kilometers? Israelis aren't used to signing waivers.

In America, the walks take place on Saturday. Here, Shabbat wasn't even considered; Friday was ruled out because of the Muslim participants.

The race would take place on Thursday, a workday.

And what would those who are already fighting breast cancer be called? Here, "survivors" means Holocaust survivors or more recently terror survivors. "Warriors," "victors" were suggested, but after much debate the Hebrew mitmodedot, which means something like "being able to cope successfully," was chosen. Would local women agree to wear the pink T-shirts that identified them as mitmodedot? No one knew.

And the biggest question of skeptics? What good does all this walking do? That's one I can answer. Thirty percent of women here still aren't going for tests for breast cancer. Early detection helps. Knowledge helps. There are communities in our country where women are still ashamed to talk about breast cancer because of the stigma.

Walking encourages talking. Walking raises awareness. Walking raises money for research.

Walking helps us face our fears. Let's admit it. Every one of us is afraid that the other shoe will fall, and we'll be like so many of our friends, our cousins, our mothers, our sisters struggling to overcome this disease.

New drug therapies have vastly improved the prognosis of most women with breast cancer, but the success rate against metastatic cancer – the kind that spreads quickly to different organs – is low. The most horrendous news is the average age of those who have breast cancer is getting younger.

This is no longer a middle-aged/older women's disease.

I WALKED with friends, with colleagues, with strangers, with my husband and my daughter Hadas, and her daughter Shani, just three months old, praying that she will be able to say, "There was once a disease called breast cancer." I prayed also that my daughter would not have to walk, as I did, with the memory of six beloved friends attached with a safety pin to my shoulder.

Whenever anyone asked me why I was taking part, I answered: "I'm walking for Sarah, RivkA, Rachel and Leah. Sarah, my dear friend who died from cancer; RivkA, a young mother of three fighting cancer; Rachel, a friend who has licked the disease (please God); and for Leah, a young woman who has the gene and who is deciding what to do about the ticking clock inside her. On October 28, I went to sleep feeling ebullient about the success of the Race. On October 29, I woke up to learn that Rivka, the young mother of three, had lost her fight.

A thousand women and men, some of whom had walked on Thursday, came for the 10 p.m. Saturday night funeral of RivkA (that's how she wrote it) Matitya, from Jerusalem. Joining her friends and family and acquaintances, were those like me who knew her best through her widely-read blog with the inspired name "Coffee and Chemo."

Her heart-to-heart talk over a virtual cup of coffee shared her daily trials and triumphs. She could be pithy and personal, factual and inspiring at the same time. She taught us that you can go on loving life and believing in God while facing the devastating statistics for metastatic cancer.

On October 19, she wrote from her hospital bed about her loss of vision and speech, the pain, her failing liver. "I wish I could end this post by reassuring you that all will be well. I cannot... but there is room for hope. The situation with my liver can change; we can find a balance of pain management that doesn't make me woozy and we can pray. At the end of the day, it is God's challenges. God is our ultimate caretaker and we will be taken care of."

Indeed, God is the ultimate caretaker. But we must also increase our efforts on earth to care for ourselves, turning awareness into vigilance, supporting research and treatment through our donations. May Rivka's memory be for a blessing, and may the cure come forth from Zion.



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