Nothing’s More Healing Than Hope

Leah relates: I was still a giddy newlywed, just one month married and on top of the world, when that world came crashing down. I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

There’s never a “good” time to be told you have cancer, yet in my case the timing seemed especially cruel. Instead of enjoying the beginning of our lives together, my new husband and I were contemplating, G-d forbid, its end. We were thrown into a whirl of medical recommendations: surgery, radiation, chemo. I could barely process what my oncologist was saying because, to me, everything meant just one frightening reality: that I might not make it.

Breaking the devastating news to our families, so soon after our simcha, was incredibly difficult. I soon learned that people react differently to bad news, and that, while everyone cared, some family members showed it by crying with me, and others by expressing encouragement and telling me stories of other women they knew who’d survived. I guess I needed both kinds of emotional support.

But it was my new sister-in-law who ended up giving me the biggest gift; she told me to contact PUAH.

“PUAH?” I asked. “Aren’t they the organization that helps people with infertility? What does that have to do with cancer?”

“More than you realize,” she said. “I have a friend who went through something similar. Just call them. Trust me.”

So, I did. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to say, but on that initial phone call, I actually didn’t say much. I managed to get out the words, “I just got married and I have cancer,” and then burst into tears.

Rabbi Eliezer Altschuller, the rabbinic adviser who’d responded to my phone call, waited for me to calm down, and then said, “Before you start any treatment, you must, must, must speak to your oncologist about freezing embryos.”

“Wh-what?”

“B’ezrat Hashem, once you get past this period of your life, you’ll want to become a mother. Cancer treatment can damage your reproductive tissue. So you want to make sure you preserve your healthy tissue now, before starting the treatment process, so that you’ll have a good chance of becoming pregnant in the future.”

My husband and I subsequently met with Rabbi Altschuller in person as well, to get more information about fertility preservation, and were very impressed by both his knowledge and his caring. But, looking back, it was that first phone call that turned everything on its head for me.

Until then, treatment plan or no, I had been approaching my diagnosis as a death sentence. Now, suddenly, someone was discussing with me a plan for my future, a strategy for ensuring that I could have my own children one day.

I immediately scheduled an appointment with my oncologist to discuss freezing embryos prior to my treatment (for a married couple, freezing embryos is considered a better method of fertility preservation than freezing eggs). She raised her eyebrows at me and said coldly, “It’s not necessary.”

Suddenly, all my optimism drained away by her crushing response. What did she mean by that? Was she trying to say that my survival chances weren’t that great? Or was she just unaware of all of the fertility implications that Rabbi Altschuller had discussed?

I’ll never know, because my husband, who’d come to the appointment with me, immediately said firmly, “Well, doctor, we think it is.”

So she wrote out a referral for embryo preservation (though she insisted on noting that there was no need for the procedure, but that it was at the patient’s request). I was so shaken after this appointment that I called PUAH again, just to make sure that I wasn’t crazy.

Once again, Rabbi Altschuller calmed me down. “Her job is to be concerned about your oncological treatment. She’s not necessarily thinking about your total future picture, just about how to get you cancer-free. It’s your job to think about your life afterwards. You’re doing the right thing.”

It was only after we actually completed the process of embryo preservation (under PUAH’s halachic supervision, which is essential any time genetic material is handled outside of the body) that I understood just how right he was. Knowing that I had embryos stored away in a lab gave me the optimism and fortitude to get through those grueling months of treatment. Whenever I felt like it was all too much, I would tell myself, “One day, I’m going to be a mother.” It was the most uplifting feeling in the world.

Sometimes, the most essential element for healing is hope.

Baruch Hashem, today I’m officially in remission. I’m still not allowed to get pregnant for another three years. The waiting is hard; I want so badly to have children already that I’ve even been contemplating finding a surrogate mother to carry one of my frozen embryos. When I briefly mentioned this idea to Rabbi Altschuller, he told me there are serious halachic implications to surrogacy, which he promised to discuss with me in more detail.

Even if I have to wait, though, it’s OK. Because I believe that, one day, I’ll be zocheh to become a mother. It’s that hope that keeps me going.

Visit PuahOnline.org or call 718-336-0603 to learn more about PUAH.

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