I’m generally a private person and, especially when it comes to my family, I am not one to share intimate details in a public setting. However, I feel that it is important to describe some moments of the most difficult year for my family. Exactly two years ago, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and since November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, I hope to be able to share a message of hope and optimism for those struggling with a medical crisis.
Two years ago, my sister got married in Jerusalem. It was an especially joyous occasion since she was the last of our four siblings to tie the knot and my parents were naturally thrilled to be marrying off their last child. The day after the wedding, my sister told my father that he didn’t look well, to which he replied with a joke about feeling sick from paying the wedding expenses. However, we all then noticed that my sister was right. Dad’s skin and eyes had an irregular, yellowish hue.
As soon as they returned home to Ohio, my Dad scheduled a doctor’s appointment, which led to an exam, which led to a test, which led to the terrible diagnosis: pancreatic cancer. Out of all possible outcomes, these two words were the worst news we could have possibly heard. Pancreatic cancer is a particularly lethal form of an awful disease with very discouraging and pessimistic survival rates since it forms so deep in the stomach that there are hardly any symptoms until it is often too late. However, for us it was even worse; out of any imaginable disease, pancreatic cancer was the only one whose deadly reputation our family already knew all too well since my grandfather’s death ten years ago from it.
After the initial shock wore off, we all went into overdrive: scouring the internet for helpful resources, reading everything we could, signing up for alerts from the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and generally doing everything in our ability to stay positive and not allow ourselves to become discouraged. Mom transformed into the family cheerleader, Dad was brave and determined, and my siblings did what we were always trained to do by our parents from the time we were children: we prayed. My sisters divided up Psalms amongst several family members and friends and we each said our designated chapters, completing the entire book every day.
We got a crash course in oncology, and learned about the different kinds of radiation and chemo cocktails that Dad would undergo to hopefully shrink the tumor so it could eventually be removed in a difficult procedure called the Whipple. My parents flew to New York and met Dr. John Chabot of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, who was extremely accomplished and well respected, but what impressed them the most was that Dr. Chabot was a “mentch,” a soft spoken and dignified gentleman, whose kindness and humility made them confident that he was their man, the agent God would use to carry out His will.
The fateful day for surgery arrived, and the entire family gathered, from Israel, Montreal and Ohio, to the hospital at six am. While we were terrified, my Dad was surprisingly calm and peaceful about what he was about to undergo. Moments before getting wheeled into surgery, Dad turned to Dr. Chabot and said, “Doctor, my family comes from the line of Jewish priests going all the way back to Aaron, the brother of Moses. In the Temple in Jerusalem, the priests would bless the people of Israel with a special blessing that I would like to bestow upon you today, ‘May God bless you and safeguard you.’” We all had tears in our eyes, but that’s Dad, always with his love for Judaism and his heritage at the forefront of his thoughts.
After that dramatic moment, we headed into the waiting room. Unlike on television, there are no constant updates from the surgical team. 2 hours went by with no word from the doctors. 4 hours went by without any notification. 6 hours, 8 hours, 10 hours and then finally after 12 hours Dr. Chabot emerged. The tension was a mile thick, the verdict was in. We all gathered fearfully, but hopefully, “We got it out. We removed the cancer. All of it.” Could it be true? We couldn’t believe our ears! Baruch Hashem! Thank God! Dr. Chabot had used a cutting edge breakthrough that wasn’t even available six months prior, and was perhaps the only surgeon in the US who could have done it. Clearly, he was the right messenger, the assigned angel from God that my parents recognized the first time they met him. We were clearly overjoyed and weeping in the waiting room. God had performed a great miracle for us and we were humbled.
Because of its personal nature, I have never shared this story publicly. We are private people, and Judaism has a concept of modesty that if God blesses you, don’t go flaunting it. However, I wanted to tell our story for two reasons. The first is because of what a saintly rabbi told my father the day before the surgery, which provided such encouragement that Dad was literally looking forward to the operation. The afternoon before the surgery, we went to get a blessing from a rabbi in Brooklyn. With penetrating intensity, the young, bearded rabbi told my father, “Don’t be scared. Tomorrow isn’t your death sentence, tomorrow is your new lease on life! You will have a successful surgery provided you fully believe that no matter how skilled your doctor is, that God is your healer. You must not even be 1% nervous or fearful. You will be a living example and inspiration to others that God can do anything. Nothing is too challenging or small for the Almighty, and He can even remove pancreatic cancer!” Dad deeply wanted to be that living example and inspiration to give others hope that God is great and the source for all blessing and miracles, and so went into surgery the next day at peace, placing himself entirely into God’s loving hands.
The second reason, is that this week marked a year since Dad’s last post-op chemotherapy session. After a grueling, stressful year of biweekly chemo treatments, the nurses presented my parents with a triumphant survivor certificate that they all signed. My parents left the Ohio State University hospital with overwhelming gratitude to the entire medical staff who had been so encouraging throughout that difficult year. By sharing our story and raising our voices during Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, my family wanted to publicly thank all the nurses and doctors who helped get my Dad to this happy milestone. Anyone devastated with bad medical news must not lose hope, but must know that there are many positive stories. As important as it is to learn all about the chemo cocktails, my family learned about another potent combination. With the right mixture of support from friends and family, prayer, positive attitudes from a caring medical team, Mom’s encouragement and Dad’s brave will to fight, there is hope. God can even remove pancreatic cancer.