When the Doctor Calls on Yom Kippur

I wrote CLUB TERMINA in the wake of my diagnosis.

Yom Kippur begins tonight and continues through sundown tomorrow. Atoning, re-thinking, contemplating, are all part of what some Jews do this day, as well as naming our dead loved ones lost in the preceding year so their names can be entered in the Book of the Dead.

And sometimes, I spend Yom Kippur remembering the night I realized I had cancer.

When I was in my thirties, I found a lump in my breast on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year—and an occasion usually filled with great joy, I was scared. The lump did not seem like an auspicious New Year’s gift, so I ran to a surgeon, he said the lump was benign. But to be sure, he would do a needle biopsy. Needless to say, the year was looking bleaker by the second.

The biopsy was quick, and painful, but the surgeon was more certain than ever that he had taken care of my problem.  His office would call me when the labs were in, but he told me he knew a lump when he saw one.

When he called one day before Yom Kippur, I knew I’d discovered one he couldn’t spot.

Doctors don’t give good news in person on the eve of Yom Kippur.

I was really scared.

,The next day I waited for 4 hours as he performed his miracles on somebody else. By 5 pm, I knew I had cancer. He showed up frantic from his day of scalpel swinging and waved a brochure at me. “Great news!” he declared to me, a woman in—in case you forgot—my thirties. “You can get a lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy.”

When I asked if that meant I had cancer, he stared at me. The lumpectomy was good news! They treated the cancer aggressively—surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

Forgive me for remembering that it wasn’t good news to me—even though 30 years later, I am here, writing this. I do not mean to sound ungrateful. That diagnosis opened up a lot in my life, but the collision of this Jewish holiday and October’s Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns also reminds me of the challenges it presented, and the losses I knew that day in his office I could face.

My advice? Contemplate away today.

But don’t call your doctor.

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