"Suddenly Life is Precious" is Tanya's contribution in LIVING LEGACIES published January 2008
This anthology is an original collection of writing by inspirational contemporary Canadian Jewish women. The authors include a range of Canadian Jewish women of all ages and backgrounds from across the country. For more details click the icon on left...
Suddenly Life is Precious
by Tanya Freedman
I had two wake-up calls that changed my life. Shortly after my fortieth birthday, my mother called from England to tell me she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. The treatment plan included surgery followed by eight weeks of radiation therapy. My immediate reaction was shock, followed by fear and anger. I couldn’t see or think straight, yet some how I managed to get through my busy day.
I needed to lash out at the betraying God I’d always had faith in. How could God have let this happen? But my need to blame wouldn’t change the facts. I learned from my intense reaction to my mother’s illness about how to deal with my daughter’s natural response, three years later, tomy own diagnosis of breast cancer.
A few days before my 43rd birthday, on Mother’s Day weekend, my surgeon phoned me. He trusted me to handle the diagnosis over the phone. As he assured me the high chances of complete recoveryfrom this type of cancer my first thought was: How do I tell my ten-year-old daughter, Natalia, and my mother?
With only 15 minutes before Natalia would come home from school, I phoned my cousin, a family physician, who had recently experienced breast cancer, including chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Quickly, I explained my news and urgent dilemma – what, how much and when to tell my daughter. I didn’t want to tell Mum, who lived abroad. But my supportive relative encouraged me to forewarn my mother. It would never be the right time.
When Natalia arrived home I braced myself to gently break the news to her. “Just the facts,” my cousin had suggested in her calm, nurturing voice, “keep it positive and tell her what she needs to know.”
Natalia reacted as expected. She burst out crying, as we hugged. Because of our almost telepathic closeness, I imagined what she was thinking. “I’m not going to die,” I reassured her firmly. “And I promise I won’t keep secrets from you. You understand?” I asked. She nodded.
“If you have any questions, just ask, OK?”
“Is it contagious?” She asked. She was talking about herself. I told her it wasn’t. I educated Natalia, as much as I felt was appropriate. The discussions helped tremendously. There are no guarantees, but my positive attitude was of utmost priority throughout the journey.
I was glad I’d heard God’s first wake-up call. Mum’s diagnosis and healing journey motivated me to close the doors of my successful art school, and I was determined to set in motion my childhood dream of transforming my passion for writing into a career a reality. If not now, at 40, then when?
My love of writing saved me on several levels three years later, dealing with my own battle with breast cancer. I focused on writing my contracted business book, forging ahead throughout constant medical appointments. I continued to work and handled life the best I could, without pessimism or drama. I kept busy and maintained fluid routines whenever possible and stayed strong for my family.
I counted my blessings for living in this generous, peaceful country, Canada. With caring, vigilant doctors, and for the miracle of loving angels like my cousin, other family members and friends. I prayed for more strength and courage to get through this hardship as fast as possible. I promisedmyself to fully appreciate life and my loved ones.
Time heals many wounds, including the challenge of coping with illness. Mum’s recurring depression taught me how to fight my feelings of depression through my healing journey. Especially for my daughter’s sake, I vowed to wrestle and conquer any negativity within and around me. The cancer didn’t define me or my personality. I would not allow itto deny me a healthy, productive and creative life. It would not take me away from my loving family, now that I more fully understood my own value in their lives. I resolved that this experience was merely a transient smudge on the canvass of life’s unexpected painting.
Eventually, the stress caught up with me. Tenacious Tanya’s inner anxieties started to crack from under the ‘stay busy, with a stiff upper lip,’ veneer.
I listened to my devoted husband and to the professionals. I followed the guidance I was given. I maintained my belief in God. I prayed for inner peace and kept my good friends close and my family closer. I did not allow anyone to drain my energy. I watched comedies and uplifting romantic movies, I read books that made me laugh out loud, I meditated and slept when I got tired.
Any disease changes us, and those around us but I found that my faith helped me through the tough times I faced. With the guidance of a therapist, I visualized myself as a boxer; jumping, sweating, swinging huge red gloves with all my muscly might. My therapist asked, “I don’t know much about boxers, but don’t they take breaks, and often?” I laughed. She helped me revisit the basics by relaxing, not to take life so seriously and to meditate, to breathe. I learned to slow down.
I paid attention to how precious life really is. We say it, we think it, we know it on a certain level, but we still live precariously, like immortals with infinity ahead of us. Fear is worse than ignorance, and both can be remedied with the pill of laughter in the face of adversity, by enjoying the present moment?
There is ample generosity all around us. Even at our darkest moments. God sent me many angels; neighbors and friends who were always there.Another angel, Lisa, and I met as a result of our shared diagnosos, but we soon became friends, determined to cultivate our positive attitudes and concentrate on what is important in life.
She took me to Sunnybrook Hospital, taking time off work, on my first day of radiation therapy. Later we had lunch filled with laughter and joy; friends sharing and talking about everything but illness and mortality.
This support gave me so much sustenance and strength through the six-week stint of radiation therapy. I braved every day, driving across town to the hospital, I meditated under the ‘zapping’ machines with the caring radiation therapists, and drove home to rest or sleep.
Before the last day of my six-week therapy I felt almost invisible, unreal, and woozy. Praying, I fought tears of self-pity, reminding myself that I could get through this last stretch of the journey. This was when another angel touched my arm. Lori Ann, with her beautiful smile, blue twinkling eyes, and a scarf covering her scalp. I didn’t try to stop my tears. I knew she understood.
Within a few minutes I felt better, like a pressure cooker valve slowly calming down. The woman with a glowing spirit consoled me, while she was going through a far more challenging journey than my own, without a husband in her life. But she did have the wings of love and faith of her three young children, her wonderful friends and God. This angel embraced me despite her own arduous battle with breast cancer.
Feeling humbled, our exchange put things into perspective. God sends messages and strength in different packages. Throughout my healing journey I didn’t want to burden Mum, either. In the eye of the storm, I sometimes felt it was worse for my loved ones, than for me. It hurt me to see pain in Mum’s eyes watching what I was going through. But my therapist had asked, “Wouldn’t you want to be there, to do everything you can for your loved ones?”
As women, we are nurturers, beacons of light and love, keeping shalom and traditions alive in our families. Just as importantly, we are God’s messengers through giving birth, all our love and sharing our intuitive wisdom. We pass the torch of our hope and faith to our next generations. Just asour own mothers, aunts, cousins and smiling angels have beenthere for us and for each other. Tanya Freedman was born in Uzbekistan, in the Jewish Community of Buchara, raised in England and now lives in Canada. Tanya is an artist and author of non-fiction and fiction. She is a mentor to youths and children with special needs. Tapping into her extensive networking skills, she continues to build relationships through her passion for volunteering. She now concentrates her passions related to writing and professional, motivational speaking.