Nadia Maccabee-Ryaboy, a medical student at the University of Minnesota, researched Jewish women and their experiences with breast cancer for a class called “Literature and Medicine.” What follows is an adaptation of the short play she wrote for this class, a series of monologues that Nadia has entitled “Body and Spirit.” Stage direction is in italicized brackets.
Rachel Green, 28, ultra-Orthodox teacher:
Hmmm…am I frightened? Because I’m starting chemo next week? Yes, I am, but not for the reasons you think. I’m not afraid of the throwing up or being tired all the time. I dread those things—sure—but I’m not afraid of them.
My Abba was sick for a very long time. As the only daughter, I stayed home and took care of him while all my brothers studied at the yeshiva. I was the last one of my class to marry, not that I’m complaining, but for 10 years I took care of Abba while my mother worked, and so I have seen plenty of sickness. I’ve been prepared for it—I know it. What I’m terrified of… is not being able to have children. Last week Dr. Galvin looked at a clipboard, not at me, as he read down a list of chemotherapy side effects. “Of course you can’t get pregnant during treatment,” he said, “and there is some risk of permanent infertility.” He continued down the list. I couldn’t breathe.
My mother always told me that an Orthodox woman’s two happiest moments in life are the bar mitzvah of her eldest son and the wedding of her first daughter. Because I married late, I knew that I’d probably only have five children rather than eight or nine, but I never imagined none. The total shame! The loneliness! The pitying looks at synagogue. The charity Shabbos invitations. I never imagined. No brit milah for our infant son, no little bodies to kiss goodnight or cook special foods for. No dirty fingerprints to wipe off doorposts. [Beat.] No one to say Kaddish for David and me.
God commands, “Be fruitful and multiply.” The rabbis say this means we should have at least two children. Sometimes I go to the mirror and look at my naked chest. I can’t see them, but I can imagine those cancerous cells growing, multiplying relentlessly beneath my flesh. Isn’t it funny, the irony of it, that I might be denied the blessing of children because these microscopic cells won’t stop reproducing?
Susan Mayhan, 72, sculptor:
Well, both of my sisters had breast cancer, so it occurred to me that I would probably be a candidate. My younger sister died of cancer, and not a day goes by that I don’t see her face. And think of her. Like many women, I discovered a lump in my breast while in the shower. My left breast. I called my oncologist right away, and he was dumbfounded that I had called him at home. “You called me at home for that!?” he said. I kept him as my doctor—what can I say? He was my internist, too. I had a mastectomy at the beginning of ‘96 and then chemo.
It’s amazing how much support I got from the community. People visited every day. I’m not talking about just close friends—other people. Even acquaintances, whom I’d known vaguely at the JCC, called and said, “I had breast cancer five years ago…” or visited me at home. My friend Esther would bring a book each week and read to me, because she knew I loved to read, but I was often too tired. That was wonderful. This Jewish tradition of bikur cholim—you know, that we’re prescribed to visit the sick—it’s unique, so important. Cancer can be so isolating, but people were always stopping by. [Yelling to her husband in the other room.] Jacob, do you remember that? All those people?
People afflicted with serious illnesses often ask, “Why me?” I never asked the stupid “Why me?” I think it’s stupid—there’s no one to answer this question. [Beat.] I’m not sure if cancer changed my life so much. [Yelling.] Did it dear? Jacob says yes. I’m not sure in what ways. I haven’t thought about it much. I’m not sure in what ways.
Note: If you’d like a copy of the entire play to read, or perform, you can contact Nadia at [email protected].
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)