“Yes, I am a breast cancer survivor, but I am also so much more. I have so much life left in me to share with the world, and I am going to squeeze every last drop of joy out of it.”
I learned how to be a survivor long before I was ever diagnosed with breast cancer. I come from my Babi Freda and she has already taught me everything I need to know.
As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I grew up well-fed on chicken soup and extraordinary stories of survival and heroism. My Babi Freda (that’s the Jewish word for grandmother) lived life in vibrant technicolour and her energy was palpable. She was strong, independent, free-spirited, loyal, and brave. She had always inspired me, both for her courage during the war and for her optimistic outlook on life. I spent the first 45 years of my life routinely turning to her for regular advice and cheerleading.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my Babi saved one of her greatest life lessons for me until the final year of her life. The first half of the year had been incredible. I’d celebrated my 45th birthday in style, surrounded by fabulous friends and family. A few months later, we were joined by even more friends and family, as we all took pride in watching my eldest child become a Bar Mitzvah. The very next day, my husband and I (elementary school sweethearts) took a quiet moment to honour our 20th wedding anniversary. I was on top of the world but had no idea I was sick.
I had been experiencing pain in my right breast for months, but mammograms and ultrasounds kept indicating that there had been no change from the previous testing, so there was no cause for alarm. I continued planning parties, celebrating life, and visiting my Babi. However, everything changed in December when I was officially diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. I would have to undergo chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and radiation.
I couldn’t even tell my Babi what was happening as dementia had stolen so much of her comprehension and memory. And yet, I drew strength from her physical presence, her warm embraces, and hearing stories of survival. When I started losing my hair two weeks into chemotherapy, I held my head high. My Babi had been forced to stand naked in a room with others and have her head and body shaved upon arrival at Auschwitz. She never let the loss of hair erase her dignity, and I chose to follow her example. When I was required to have small tattoos imprinted on my chest to help guide the radiation team, I took a deep breath. My Babi never let the concentration camp number tattooed on her arm against her will define her. In her words, “life can be tough, but I am tougher.”
On the really rough days when all I wanted to do was lie in bed and the fear of my unknown future overtook me, I would repeat this mantra: I am already a survivor. I come from my Babi Freda, her blood courses through my veins, and she has already taught me everything I need to know to survive.
Throughout my treatment, I continued to engage in the volunteer work that brought me joy and allowed me the opportunity to honour my Babi. It gave me purpose and meaning when I needed it most. For over 30 years, my Babi Freda spoke to Alberta students sharing her Holocaust experience, and using it to teach about the dangers of prejudice and hate. When she became physically unable to speak any longer, I started speaking in her stead, sharing a video of her detailing her Holocaust experience.
I continued sharing her Holocaust experience the entire time that I was sick. There is one section of my presentation to students where I explain that a live electrical wire surrounded Auschwitz and many of the prisoners inside the camp chose to end their own lives by going up and touching the live electric wire. My Babi Freda would tell me that there were many times that she thought about ending her own life by touching the wire. However, every time she thought of suicide, she would think of her mother and her sister. Both had promised her that she would be the one in the family to live to tell the story of what had happened to the family. My Babi Freda believed this to the core of her being and remained focused on staying alive to share what had happened.
True to her conviction, my Babi did precisely that. She survived the murders of the majority of her family, the loss of countless friends over the years, and the death of my Zeyda (grandfather). But she always looked forward, never back, embracing all the wild changes that life brought her way.
And this last lesson, the one that is truly the greatest gift that she has ever given me is to keep looking forward. Yes, I am a breast cancer survivor, but I am also so much more. I have so much life left in me to share with the world, and I am going to squeeze every last drop of joy out of it.
It feels as if my Babi knew that she needed to stick around while I fought the greatest battle of my life and once I knew that I was going to be alright, it was time for her to go. My Babi died on January 11, 2020, and the truth is that I am heartbroken. But I am also blessed, grateful, and full of hope.
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