A Change of Plans

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03 Dec 2019

There is nothing like a death sentence hanging over one’s head to make havoc of one’s retirement plans.

The call from my husband Abe came one autumn afternoon. “I got the results of the needle biopsy. I have cancer.” His words caused me to tremble..

In July of 2018, Abe suffered with a virus that seemed to stay with him like an unwanted house guest. After about six weeks he began feeling better, but his neck felt swollen and he noticed a lump. One of our family doctors recommended that he see a specialist in endocrinology. The specialist performed a needle biopsy. He was almost 100% sure that Abe had papillary thyroid cancer, which is the easiest to treat of the four thyroid cancers and which has the best survival rate.

Numerous tests and doctor visits later, Abe was wheeled into surgery for removal of his thyroid gland and of any lymph nodes that contained papillary cancer. When the estimated time for the surgery passed and the surgeon did not emerge, I had a feeling that something was amiss.

When the surgeon came out to speak to me and to two of our children he was not smiling. He explained that the cancer was aggressive, and it had wrapped itself around various parts of Abe’s neck. The surgeon said that this was not typical of papillary cancer, and that he had to call up another surgeon for advice. The surgeon removed as much of the cancer that he could without causing major damage.

About a week after the surgery, Abe and I went to see the surgeon who checked how the healing process was going. The surgeon surmised that Abe probably had squamous cell carcinoma. “Oh my G-d!” I thought to myself, “my sister went through such agony and died of squamous cell carcinoma that had appeared on her tongue as a sore and then had metastasized to her neck.”

After two weeks of high tension and concern we received the biopsy report. Abe had 30% papillary thyroid cancer and 70% anaplastic thyroid cancer—one of the deadliest and rarest kinds of cancers. His life expectancy was three to twelve months.

That evening I walked on a local promenade as tons of thoughts raced through my mind. I imagined the horrible suffering my husband would endure. I imagined being left alone in a big house. I imagined having to travel each week to one of our five married children for the Sabbath. I imagined the younger two children not having a father at their weddings. I didn’t know who to talk to. I finally decided to drop by our daughter who lives nearby. I paced around her living room and she gave me chamomile tea to drink.

This bit of news did not fit into my plans for “retirement.” I had planned to spend more time writing than I have in the past decades, and to really develop my writing career. Before the unwanted cancer decree, things like raising seven children, babysitting for grandchildren, housecleaning, food shopping and preparation, sinks full of dishes pining to be washed, paid work, running errands, etc., often received priority over writing.

Now, the cancer would not only take over parts of my husband’s body, but it would also dig its claws into my daily schedule. The multitude of doctor visits and tests competed with many of my regular activities.

All the doctors we visited said to start radiotherapy immediately to try to extend life by a few months. (But even if life is extended, the radiotherapy would make for a terrible quality of life.) Although I come from a family replete with doctors and nurses, I am not a fan of chemo and radiotherapy. Neither get to the root of the issue that caused the cancer in the first place. I felt that the thirty plus years of work pressure and the inherent commuting pressure were at the source of Abe’s cancer. We started researching and going to various alternative practitioners.

My husband decided not to cancel his planned week and a half trip to the US to visit his sister and brother. His sister Sue made an appointment for Abe with a top-notch thyroid oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City. The hospital requested the pathology slides that had been examined as well as some more slides and pathology material.  I zipped my lip, but I didn’t understand why Abe wanted to re-do the pathology tests which would run into thousands and thousands of dollars.

In New York, Abe was seen by a thyroid cancer specialist before the pathology report came back. Abe therefore extended his trip. The report stated that Abe did not have anaplastic thyroid cancer, but non-small cell adenocarcinoma of the lung. He met with a lung oncologist who suggested a targeted therapy which had been approved two years prior. It is specific for people with the same kind of lung cancer that Abe has and who also have the ALK mutation. Abe heeded the oncologist’s suggestion and underwent an MRI in a private clinic. The cancer had already metastasized to his brain.

Upon Abe’s return to Israel we continued the slew of appointments with various medical modalities. The targeted therapy, which comes in pill form, costs $17,000 a month in the US. Here in Israel it is about $9,000 a month, but it is fully covered by National Insurance.

We continue trying to heed the seven steps of keeping well and healing illness: getting seven to eight hours a night of sleep, eating a healthy mostly vegan organic diet, drinking filtered water, reducing stress (I am adamant that he not return to work), exercising at least five times a week for at least half an hour, being surrounded by supportive people, and what I feel is the most important—-praying to our Creator.

This major health challenge was not in my plan of what our retirement years would contain, but we have seen many miracles and blessings.  We are blessed with an outpouring of support and love, a deepening of our relationship, an even better appreciation of each day, an even healthier kitchen and a closer connection with Hashem. Hashem is above numbers and I pray that Abe lives way past the medical expectations.

P.S. For at least three years my husband has had a cough on and off. He went numerous times to the family doctors, but lung cancer was never suspected. The most they did was to send him for X-rays and prescribe antibiotics for suspected pneumonia. He should have been sent for a CT scan. It is no wonder that most people with lung cancer are only diagnosed in Stage 4. Be your own advocate.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.