Mikveh Following Cancer


It is up to the veterans of radiation treatment to mark an end to treatment, and I decided on a ritual bath with supportive friends.

by Diane Bernbaum

The following article was reprinted with permission from Ritualwell.org.

I always have trouble with the verb. Is it: “I have breast cancer” or “I had breast cancer.” It’s clear when you have it. My mammogram showed a star shape, indication that something was adhering to a ductal wall and pulling on it. It was clear to the radiologist who biopsied it, the pathologist who put it under his microscope and the surgeon who removed it. What is unclear is that once the surgeon snips out the tumor and the radiation oncologist zaps the area daily for many weeks to blindly aim at any invisible cells that might or might not have remained behind, is anything malignant still there? Since medical science can only guess at the end of disease, it is left to us, the veterans of the experience, to mark an end, albeit knowing that this may be a true end or only a stage in a process.

Mikveh certainly has never been a part of my life. I don’t observe the laws of nidah, ritual purity. When I got married I’m not even sure I knew what a mikveh was, much less that it would have been nice to visit one in preparation for the ceremony. In the last decade, as friends began talking about their experiences in the mikveh, my interest was piqued, but not enough to do anything about it.

The week after my surgery, one of my teachers, Michal, stopped by my office asking if I’d like to read her senior thesis on contemporary mikveh use. As an anthropology student raised in the Conservative movement, mikveh use was an aspect of Judaism that she had been able to study both with the dispassion of an outsider and the appreciation of an insider. While recuperating I had been dividing my reading time between two seven hundred page books: Susan Love’s Breast Book and a biography of John Adams. Somehow an academic thesis proved a welcome diversion. Although Michal had concentrated mainly on discussing mikveh use for nidah, she did mention it as part of a healing ritual. The idea that I might like to do something like that at the end of a journey I was only beginning flitted into my head and promptly flitted out.

Although I had planned to join a formal support group, I soon found that I was spending hours talking on the phone to friends and acquaintances who had been in my shoes before, and they were functioning like my own personalized support group. One day I phoned a friend and colleague who was about two years ahead of me in the process. After telling me things that had been difficult about both her radiation and chemotherapy, she ended the conversation by saying, “And when you’re done with your treatments, go to the mikveh. Find a woman rabbi and do it. It was the best thing I did.”

Several weeks later in Office Depot, I bumped into my friend, Margie. Although I hadn’t seen her recently, many people had told me that she had included my name in the prayers for healing at the synagogue where she is a rabbi and I was very comforted and moved that she had done so. Just as we were about to end our conversation and walk out the door, I stammered, “I actually was thinking about you the other day. I wonder if you’d be willing to go to the mikveh with me when I finish my radiation.” She said she was honored but had never created a healing ritual like that. We would approach this experience as novices together.

Because Margie was going to be out of town the two weeks immediately following the completion of my radiation, there would be a break between the end of treatment and the day of the ritual. This was actually a good thing because during the six and a half weeks of radiation, the technicians mark the area to be treated with Sharpie pens and radiation itself leaves you burned. My breast was left with a bright red circle outlined in purple. It wasn’t quite ready for the mikveh.

Margie and Michal took it upon themselves to create the ritual. They asked if I wanted to be involved. I thought about it and said I wanted to have the experience of the event, but had no investment in the creation of the ritual. They asked a few questions: Did I want Hebrew in the ceremony? (Yes). Did I want body language? (Yes). Did I want time to talk about the experience of being ill? (Yes). I had a choice between going to a mikveh that was esthetically lovely but would have an attendant and one that was sterile but where we could be alone. (I opted for privacy.)

I had felt badly that I would be excluding my husband Ed. He’d been so supportive throughout my whole illness. When I found out he would be out of town that day anyway, I was relieved. I never actually sat down and thought about who I wanted to have with me at the mikveh, but invitations kept popping out of my mouth. My good friend Dezzy had kept my office running when my body and mind couldn’t be there. She was the first person to know I had been sent for a biopsy and had shared each daily part of the process of diagnosis, surgery and treatment. She probably knew what was in my head more than I did and had been intensely supportive. And as a plus, she was observant and had mikveh experience. She said she would be pleased to be included.

I asked a few other women who had also been very emotionally supportive, but they had work obligations the morning we had chosen. I thought of many more I would have liked to have invited, but knew that the space was small and even if it wasn’t, the intimacy of the event didn’t warrant large numbers. Then a few days before I called my friend Linda, my old next door neighbor. She had known just what to say to me when she found out my diagnosis and it seemed important to have someone there who had known me for 25 years.

The day before the ceremony Margie came over to my house to show me the outline of the ritual she and Michal had written. We talked about what I might want to say. I prefaced my incoherent thoughts with the caveat that I didn’t think of myself as a very reflective or spiritual person. Our talk helped me focus on what I wanted to say. When Margie left the house I sat down and filed my nails in preparation for arriving at the mikveh in a way that was prescribed ritually. I started removing the polish from my toenails and got a better idea. I ran out to a pedicure salon and let a professional share in my preparation. I had to explain to the manicurist that this time I didn’t want polish on my toenails. She told me they were very pretty without it.

The next morning I started out early to round up my four friends. It felt good to arrive in one car. Three of the women knew each other but visiting on the drive to the mikveh gave Linda a chance to become part of the group. The mikveh was in a synagogue. When the secretary unlocked the door of the room, we were in another world. The small anteroom was just big enough for the five of us. Margie said that when she first thought she and Michal would be the only people with me, it was perfect since Jewish events need two witnesses. Then when she knew there would be a third friend, it was perfect because a Jewish Bet Din requires three judges. Then when she knew there would be a fourth, it was still perfect because my friends would be representative of the four angels.

That was my segue into showing a drawing my friend Yiskah had made for me of the “five” angels, Raphael (healing), Gabriel (strength), Uriel (light) and Michael (Godlike spirit) with a picture of “Diane” in the middle. It had hung on the wall of my bedroom above a small clay golem that a neighbor had brought from Poland and a brocade amulet that Ed had brought back from a Buddhist temple in Japan, where he had written my name and a prayer on a wooden plaque and left it there a week after my surgery. It felt good to have multiple cultures rooting for my recovery. I explained that I was wearing a sweater my mother had knit for my father 50 years before and a necklace that was a long-ago Mother’s Day gift and said “Mom”. I felt as if my family was there with me. As we stood in a circle, I talked about my feelings of illness and of recovery. My friends each told how my illness had affected them. They spoke of vulnerability and of strength. Of friendship and of love. There were tears but mainly smiles.

Margie and Michal had created a lovely ceremony. We sang a song of protection and one of healing. I recited gomel, the blessing of thanksgiving. We read verses from Ezekiel about the cleansing properties of water. I recited a prayer looking to the future. Then I went into the private room where I showered and slowly slipped into the warm mikveh waters. My four witnesses came in to be with me as I said first the traditional prayer of immersion, then one praising God who heals and finally a Shehehianu. They left me alone for a few moments so that I could luxuriate in the healing waters. I dressed and joined them in the anteroom where they jointly recited the priestly blessing (in the feminine!) and we sang Oseh Shalom.

I gave each woman a gift of a small bowl and took them out to Japanese lunch. It sort of took on the flavor [of] a geriatric spiritual sweet sixteen party.

I felt a little unsettled because I realized in retrospect I had forgotten to remove my wedding rings. I knew about not wearing make-up, cutting my nails and not wearing jewelry, but somehow those rings were so much a part of my appendage I had just forgotten. One friend had noticed but decided I wanted to have part of Ed with me in the water. Not a bad thought, but it hadn’t been intentional. I had wanted the experience to be perfect and this made it a little not so, but as a quilter, I know that each quilt has one little mistake that makes it more real and beautiful. I needed to not be upset at my forgetfulness.

By the next evening I was sneezing. At first I was upset that this magnificent celebration of healing was followed so soon by a cold. My friend Nancy reminded me that indeed the mikveh was a demarcation between one illness that was so scary and one that was so ordinary. It was ok to be sick. That Shabbat I asked for an aliyah to the Torah in order to bench gomel. I first heard of that custom during the Gulf War when a family had returned safely from an Israel filled with Scud missiles. Last Yom Kippur the person leading services asked everyone who had recovered from an illness or been through a dangerous experience to collectively bench gomel. At first I didn’t know if I was entitled. I was only a few weeks past my diagnosis. But I had been through a lumpectomy and a week later a re-excision to create a wider margin around a second tumor the surgeon found during my first surgery. Making it through two surgeries with general anesthetic in eight days seemed to qualify me to stand and say the words, even though I had yet to determine future treatment or begin that treatment. So I tentatively rose and whispered the prayer. I found saying the words, “Praised are You Adonai Our God, Ruler of the Universe Who bestows loving kindness upon us. You have showered us with gifts beyond measure. We do not earn Your gifts; but with great humility we receive them” to be transformative. Now I wanted to bench gomel one more time in public to mark the end of my treatment and of my having gone to the mikveh. It felt odd to be praying for my recovery in the midst of a bad cold, but meaningful just the same.

The next week I visited my oncologist. She asked me if I had done anything to celebrate the end of treatment. I explained that I had gone to the ritual bath with some friends and then said the prayer for recovery from danger in my synagogue. I know she was expecting a different answer. One of my friends had sent an e-mail telling me to buy a significant piece of jewelry. At the beginning of my illness Ed and I kept daydreaming of all the places where we would vacation once I got healthy. I could tell on my oncologist’s face that the answer she usually got to that question involved diamond earrings or trips to Hawaii or even dinners at Chez Panisse. I definitely had given her an answer she had never heard before but I could see that even though she was of a different culture, she thought this was an incredibly neat idea. And so do I.

About the Author

Diane BernbaumDiane Bernbaum was born in Milwaukee and went to college and graduate school in Boston. After teaching public school for a few years, she moved to Berkeley where she has lived since 1976. For the last 33 years, she has been director of Midrasha, a supplementary community Hebrew high school.

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