I’m in the car jammed between my two- and three-year old boys in their bulky car seats. My in-laws are driving us to a playground in our new city, Los Angeles, and my cell phone rings showing an incoming call from my GP. The news isn’t good. My second-opinion cancer surgeon has found something new—an aggressive tumor that throws into question all of the conversations and thinking and agonizing my husband and I have been doing for the last several weeks.
One second I had a mess of stage-zero cancer in my right breast, a noninvasive kind also known as DCIS (Ductal carcinoma in situ). The next second it was DCIS plus something else entirely: an invasive and especially aggressive tumor outside the milk ducts. The shorthand for the type of tumor was “triple positive,”—much more dangerous and frightening than “noninvasive stage-zero”— and I was in shock.
“Not my plan!” I screamed in my head.
In those days, when things didn’t go my older child’s way, he would cry, “That was not my plan!”
Ahh. The Plan, with its many transitions. After six years of major personal and professional transitions, I met my husband-to-be, Benjamin, the very week I started a new job in a new field; then, three months later, after years of working in an unrelated field, came his epiphany that he wanted to become a rabbi; we got engaged, planned our wedding, got married, and planned the next steps with careful intent. He started rabbinical school with a first year in Israel (I stayed in N.Y.), we moved house, we had two beautiful and exhausting boys 18 months apart (unplanned: I struggled with postpartum depression with the first one), and my husband launched a non-profit organization in the midst of our first son’s birth.
It was finally time to take a freaking breath.
The most recent transition had involved a high-stress job placement process for Benjamin in his new career as a rabbi. There was heartache when he didn’t get the offer we had hoped for, followed shortly thereafter by euphoria when an unexpected opening led to an offer at a wonderful synagogue in Los Angeles.
There was also my job: I had been offered a continuing position in L.A. with my New York employer, only to find out, a few weeks before the move, that the arrangement wasn’t going to work out. I scrambled to negotiate a severance package, and realized I’d have to look for work within a month of moving.
Not my plan.
We arrived in L.A. in the summer of 2016. The transition was intense. Also great. And exhausting. And lonely. There we were, using the GPS just to get to the supermarket, with no easy access to public transportation, no babysitter, no friends or nearby family for relief.
Unplanned for, we were caught between old and new cities, old and new career, friends and no-friends. Our boys were between toddlerhood and childhood, between worlds really, with only us to tether them.
I was between being a regular private person and being in the very public role of rabbi’s spouse in a community where neither of us had any history.
By almost any measure, these whiplashing shifts presented a lot to process and adjust to.
Then came the sharp pain in my chest on August 21st, less than five weeks after we
touched down in Los Angeles, and a week before my 43rd birthday. The pain was followed by an emergency room visit, two rounds of antibiotics, then, a few weeks later, ultrasound, a mammogram and a painful biopsy, all of which culminated, one sunny day in September, with the DCIS diagnosis.
Not my plan.
This was days before the High Holidays. I visited my second opinion doctor between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While I awaited the results of those biopsies, I sat in a pew and my husband sat on the bimah. Rather than the annual theoretical contemplation of mortality, I was dialing in to very real contemplations of whether I might, in the next number of months or years, live or die.
Even in that terrifying moment, I felt the melodrama, as if I were starring in a Jewish-themed Lifetime Original movie: new rabbi and family join a community far from home. His spouse gets breast cancer and the congregation pulls together to make the family’s first awful months as un-miserable as possible, thus cementing a bond that would last for years. Which, in fact, is pretty close to what happened, unplanned.
How did I get through? Oddly, I don’t remember ever feeling depressed. I felt sad and scared and low and miserable for chunks of time. I remember having a diminished tolerance for my children when they were demanding and whining, or sometimes when they just wanted to play.
I know depression and how it slithers in and quietly attacks, boring its teeth into all your soft bits. I experienced depression for a couple of years in my early 20s after my 24-year-old sister died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. Then again after my father died suddenly when I was in my mid-30s. Then again after my first son was born and the exhaustion and shock of taking care of a newborn rattled my body and brain for months.
Perhaps because of those devastating experiences, the cancer seemed to me, perhaps irrationally, something I could tackle. My mind always returned to the thought that nothing could be worse—not cancer, not a million simultaneous transitions— than the two worst events in my life, the sudden deaths of my sister and father.
When some of the people I grew close to remarked on my relatively upbeat attitude through six rounds of chemo, a double mastectomy, and the many weeks of daily radiation treatments that followed, I would explain by telling about those earlier losses. But we were also buoyed by waves of emotional, spiritual, financial and culinary support. Friends and family from afar visited throughout the year, and our congregation set up a “meal train” to bring our household extraordinary sustenance four nights a week for seven months.
I found a support center devoted to cancer. In addition to free lectures, gentle exercise classes, and family programs, there were dozens of support groups targeted to specific cancer diagnoses. Mine was made up of badass women of every age with stage 1 and 2 breast cancer. These women, many of whom became friends, shared their struggle with delayed diagnosis, botched surgeries, residual pain, unsympathetic doctors, dreadful side effects, unsupportive spouses, and having to couch-surf all through cancer treatment because of poverty.
Cancer wasn’t not my plan, but I came to see that while I had an invasive, life-threatening tumor, in so many respects I had it easy.
I had Benjamin, who with incalculable and selfless love and care supported me every single day, no matter how exhausted from our kids’ sleeplessness and his own new-job and new everything fatigue. He organized the kids, mobilized visitors, brought me delicious snacks, encouraged me to take walks, or lie down, or do whatever I wanted to do. All of this in spite of his own very intense emotions about what we were going through. I know with certainty that I could not do the same; he has an extraordinary capacity to be self-reflective without loitering too long in his own psychological goo.
Then there was media, no small part of my survival. I binged on dystopian fiction: audiobooks of 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, TV series like Cold War-era The Americans and any dark British mystery series I could get my hands on.
I did punctuate the bleakness with some levity in the form of The Great British Baking Show, Project Runway and Downton Abbey, but mostly I wanted dark. I wanted to swim in other people’s problems. Gratitude with a pinch of schadenfreude.
My dark mood was not purely about my own circumstances. I started my chemo infusions the day before Donald Trump was elected. I now had the shock of that political and social bomb to contend with. I tried to process what had happened to our country. I tried to understand how so many could have voted for him. I tried not to catastrophize. When, later that week the worst of the chemo side effects hit—exhaustion, diarrhea and a generalized awfulness that I called the gaping yaw, it felt like a days-long fever dream.
One thing I did not do was turn to the Internet for solace, help, connections or information related to cancer. I didn’t research the diagnosis, or seek alternative medical paths, or arm myself with the latest statistics and thinking. I found that I was able to be an advocate for myself even without that.
Some women in my support group found all the data grounding and empowering. I found it overwhelming and unhelpful to learn about all of the things I could have or should have done differently to reduce my risk—and which might not have made a difference at all—like get a mammogram sooner, have children earlier, breastfeed for longer, eat less fat, take different birth control. The Web was aswarm with all the ways in which my choices may have contributed to my illness. I’m not proud of not wanting to educate myself more. It’s just where I was.
Once I was diagnosed and had a plan (I went with the second-opinion doc’s approach), life began to feel somewhat knowable again. It would be awful for sure, but if all went according to plan, the worst of it would be contained to roughly one year. Despite the aggressive nature of the tumor, the prognosis was good, because there was a targeted therapy to treat the very attribute that made it aggressive. (Five years earlier, before the treatment was available, things would not have been so relatively rosy.)
The first three of six rounds of chemo were the worst. The gaping yaw took hold and made me want to put myself into suspended animation until the symptoms subsided. It was a challenge to interact, to eat, drink or enjoy anything. It was one of the tightest, chokingest places I’ve ever been.
By the fourth round, I was doing acupuncture and taking medical cannabis (a combined THC and CBD tincture). The two together made a world of difference. My symptoms were far milder and I had more energy. I was starting to come out of that choking narrow place. Mitzrayim. I don’t know a whole lot about the Bible, but this I knew. I knew it from 42 years of seders and from my husband’s commentary. Mitzrayim, the narrows where the Hebrews were held captive, and from which they emerged to a better place.
I emerged with no more cancer, a more practiced parent, a humbled and grateful Angelino.
Elizabeth S. Bennett leads the content strategy team at Capital Group, a global investment manager.