Commentary: Taking It Personally
Because of my longtime affiliation with Hadassah, both as a volunteer and a professional writer, I have always known that the organization is dedicated to pikuah nefesh, the saving of lives. I had, over the years, written countless checks in support of that sacred task as well as many articles describing medical achievements and individual cases in which Hadassah’s efforts meant the difference between life and death. But I never anticipated it would be my own life that Hadassah would save. Yet that’s precisely what happened to me.
My story began at a meeting of my Elana Chapter of White Plains, New York. At that meeting, a waterproof card to hang over a showerhead was distributed. Designed with the familiar Hadassah logo, it had instructions for breast self-examination, describing the technique of palpation and giving nonthreatening advice about what to do if one felt something unusual.
As is my unfortunate habit, I shoved it into my bag with other brochures and, as I recall, two Passover recipes and a black-and-white cookie, in case I should be overcome with hunger on the drive home. And then, of course, I forgot about it, and over the weeks, it was buried beneath shopping lists, expired supermarket coupons and a clutter of other debris. It was only when I began planning my Seder menu and remembered the recipes that I found the card (yes, I discarded the cookie) and, with uncharacteristic resolve, hung it in my shower.
There it dangled, ignored as Passover came and went until one morning, for no particular reason, I stared at it, read the instructions and obediently followed them. Gently, rhythmically, I explored the tender tissue, my fingers faithful to the prescribed steps—raise your arm, palpate, move on. My right breast was all smooth. Confident now, I repeated the process, inch by inch, on my left breast and then paused. I went over that quadrant again. I was not deceived. It was there, almost infinitesimal, but no matter its size, it was an unwelcome invader.
I reread the card carefully. Its message was clear: If there is any doubt at all after self-examination, see your physician. I obeyed.
My gynecologist, who was also a personal friend, examined me, assured me that what I felt was probably some minor calcification but, at my insistence, sent me for a mammogram and a sonogram. Both were clear. I was not deterred. I had felt something and the Hadassah directive had emphasized persistence. Following Hadassah’s directive, I insisted on a needle biopsy.
The findings were unclear: “Some cells I’m not happy about,” the breast specialist murmured. He scheduled a surgical biopsy. The findings were no longer unclear. I had cancer, carcinoma in situ, to be exact. He told me my options: a lumpectomy, regular intake of a prophylactic drug and examinations at least three or four times a year. There was a good likelihood that this aggressive cancer might attack my other breast. Only a double mastectomy would ensure prevention of a recurrence. As I left his office, he asked why, given the smallness of the carcinoma and the findings of the tests, I had insisted on the aspiration.
“Hadassah,” I replied.
I discussed my options with my husband, researched breast cancer information from many Web sites, including studies done by Hadassah Hospital doctors. But my decision was clear. Seven years ago, I underwent a double mastectomy and I have been, with great gratitude to Hadassah, cancer-free ever since.
Today, those cards hang in my daughters’ homes. It is a lifesaving gift, an exemplar of the caring mandate that inspired Henrietta Szold—arukhat bat ami, healing the daughter of my people. I am one such healed daughter. Thank you, Hadassah.H