The Human Spirit: For
Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah
November 12, 2010
Barbara Sofer , THE
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
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.
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.