Ahava Emunah’s Story: Living with Love and Faith

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(1/7) “I Knew”

“It was July 2012, and I had been feeling unwell. I was going back and forth to different doctors and trying to find a reason for feeling so tired. Being so tired, I started feeling useless. At age 36, I could not accept that I was just going to be exhausted for the rest of my life. I felt I was too young to be complaining about how tired I was.

I had some mid-cycle spotting, which for me was a huge alarm. I was bloating and swelling. I could tell that something was just not right. I had been hoping so badly to be pregnant and have a sixth baby.

It was Thursday and I was panicking that something was wrong. I had made an appointment to go to a gynecologist, who I never met before because he had the next available appointment but I had to wait until Sunday to go. I am a licensed physical therapist, and I was reading through all my anatomy books, trying to find an answer to what was going on. What I felt in my abdomen, were these balls the size of melons. I was trying to figure out, what could these things be in this part of my body? Not kidneys. Could it be intestines? I came to the chilling conclusion that it must be related to my ovaries.

I had never thought about ovarian cancer before. My father was a survivor of stage 4 colon cancer, and I had always known that I was at higher risk. What had really worried me my whole life, was breast cancer. My paternal grandmother had died of breast cancer at a very young age. I had never heard of the BRCA gene or understood the links to other cancers.

I was laying on the floor, feeling my stomach and I told my husband, “I think I have ovarian cancer.” And he said, “No, no- don’t say that. Just wait and see what the doctors say.”

It was pretty clear as soon as I got to the doctor. He did an exam, and then an ultrasound and then said, “You need to go to the emergency room.” I was alone for the appointment, my husband was working, and my five kids were home alone. At this point, I knew. I could tell by the tones they were using and how urgent the situation seemed to them.

At first, I couldn’t comprehend how serious the situation was. I called my husband, who had just arrived at work after a long commute, to turn around and come home to stay with the kids. I then did a very unthought-out thing and I drove myself to the ER. They gave me another ultrasound and a CT, and it was clear to them. It was serious.

I definitely had cancer.”

(2/7) “Get it out”

“In the meantime, we hadn’t told anyone in the family until we knew for sure what was going on. My brother, Eli, called me that day- he wanted to bring his wife and kids over to our house to visit.

I couldn’t lie to him. I wasn’t home. So I told him where I was and what was going on. He rushed to the hospital to be by my side. It was a huge comfort to me.

We all decided that I needed to tell my parents. Once my dad found out, he kicked into high gear. He started asking all his contacts and doctor friends, inquiring into candidates for the best doctors and surgeons.

My dad found the top oncologist and gynecologist surgeon. My husband and I showed up the next day, Monday, where he operates. He was about to go into surgery. We stopped him in the hallway, and I said, “Please, please, can I see you today?.” He told me that he had surgery for three hours, but if I waited, he would see me afterward. I felt a huge rush of relief. He could have just said, “No, make an appointment with my secretary.” But I think he could see in my eyes how much I needed to be seen right away. He was so kind.

I showed him the results from the CT and ultrasound and it was apparent to him what we were dealing with. It was advanced ovarian cancer. His plan was to perform a hysterectomy and oophorectomy and remove everything in between.

I begged him, “Please, if you can leave my uterus and maybe an ovary, please try and do that because I really want to have more children.” I was obviously not with-it. I didn’t realize quite how serious it was. He told me that if there was any chance of saving them he would, but he knew already that there was zero chance.

I told him, “I don’t think I can wait another Shabbat with this cancer in me.” He did me another kindness. He said, “Thursdays are usually my day off, but I will operate on you this week.” It was Erev Tisha B’av. But he understood that human feeling of needing to get this cancer out of my body.

I was scared, but I have always been the kind of person who had a lot of faith. I don’t remember crying or telling myself that I was going to die. I had no intention of shutting down.

It was major abdominal surgery. I woke up in instant menopause. I had a tube going down my nose into my stomach which was really unpleasant. I had a catheter too. Between that and all the tubes and oxygen, and it was scary waking up like that.

But I was so happy to have the cancer gone.”

(3/7) “Keep On”

“I was so thankful- I felt like the doctor had saved my life. He told me, “We got the cancer, we got it all out.” I was relieved.

He made a shidduch for me with my new oncologist.

They told me, “We are going to do chemotherapy now, but you are really lucky. This chemotherapy is just meant to be ‘a mop-up job’ because there is no evidence of disease in your body right now.” It made me feel really good. Like I didn’t really need that chemotherapy, but we were just going to do it for peace of mind. In retrospect, I know that it was so not true.

I told myself that I was like my dad. That I was going to beat this.

I began chemotherapy and my mom moved into our home to help take care of our little kids. I was really OK. I felt like I didn’t have much to complain about, because at that point, beyond the nasty side effects of the chemotherapy drugs– nausea, fatigue, and hair loss–  I was feeling OK. I was tired, but I could walk around, run, and still exercise. Being mobile made me feel like I was alive. I could walk down the beach! I could take my children on short outings and participate as a mother and wife and friend.

I buckled down on my writing, being positive, helping fundraise for cancer organizations.

But with a devastating blow, the cancer came back, in less than one year.

Considering how serious everything had been, I had remained so upbeat. I was convinced that everything was going to be OK. I had been through the tough stuff; the surgery, challenging chemo, being bald, the recovery. And still, I had maintained my faith that when I finished, I would be done with this cancer business.

But that wasn’t to be.

I started having a feeling that the cancer was coming back. My oncologist said, “You know, it’s very difficult after a cancer diagnosis. People are always worried that every pain is cancer. You need to go and live your life and be cancer-free.”

I told him, “No. I am sure the cancer is back.”

They did a CT and they saw that I had some fluid in my pelvis. He said, “It’s probably nothing, just go and enjoy your life.”

But I couldn’t let it go. Unfortunately, I was right.

They tested the fluid and it was cancerous. They did a PET CT, and discovered cancer in my liver and my chest wall. It was already stage 4, and from then on, life seemed fragile and fraught with disaster and constant ups and downs… including more bad news.

I was scared. That diagnosis felt like a death sentence. I still refused to believe that I was going to die.

‘Not me. I am going to continue to find treatments and I am going to stay alive.’”

(4/7) “Run Out Of Options”

“From that point on, my life has been just searching for new treatments.

I did another surgery, this time working with an overseas medical institution. They tried to come up with a new idea, and the hope was that they possibly could have created a designer chemotherapy for me. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.

The cancer continued to grow in me. So I was treated with chemotherapy again in 2014, and it initially worked. I used a grueling regimen of fasting before, during, and after my chemotherapy infusions, to starve the cancer.

I achieved full remission again, which was unheard of.

But the cancer came back a third time.

I was accepted into a study where ⅔ of the patients were getting a new drug; PARPS inhibitors. When the cancer progressed, we fought with the drug company to tell us whether I was getting the medication or placebo. It was in the contract I’d signed but they reneged! After much grief, we strong-armed the drug company into revealing the truth. Unfortunately, it turned out that I was getting the placebo.

Eventually, I had the opportunity to take another medication as a maintenance treatment, but that one didn’t work for me either. The cancer came back anyway.

At this point, every once in a while I would get this horrible feeling, ‘Oh My God. I could die.’ It was a terrifying feeling, but then would I tell myself to snap out of it. I would tell myself, ‘You need to be a mother for your children. You need to keep going. You need to find more treatments, and get better.’

Last year, I was overseas getting treatment for half a year. With the generosity of my loved ones who paid obscene amounts of money, I was able to receive immunotherapy and a specialized type of radiation. In spite of the love and generosity, the cancer grew out of control.

I have four daughters and a son in the middle. Each simcha is another step that I might not have been there for. We have celebrated two bat mitzvahs and a bar mitzvah since I have been sick. For the girls, I was very active still- even though I had cancer I didn’t feel like a sick and dying person. For my son’s bar mitzvah, I started making all these plans; ordering things and making reservations, and then we realized: I was too sick to be doing this. I wouldn’t able to be at a hall to celebrate this simcha.

We canceled everything. We made it more of a Shabbat bar mitzvah. All of my immediate family was here and we ate all the meals together. My son invited all of his friends and it was a very spiritual occasion! It was more than cool, it was fabulous! The entire event was about my son. He and his friends sang and danced and even played soccer. We ate delicious meals. My amazing and loving friends provided beautiful cakes and platters of fruit and vegetables for Shabbat Kiddush. It was all about him and we really were able to celebrate together. Though in a wheelchair, I didn’t take a second for granted.

At a certain point this past year, we were at the end of the road. There was no more treatment left for me. The doctors here in Israel said, “Sorry, we have run out of options.”

Getting to the end of being told, “There is nothing else we can do for you,” and being sent home felt like the end. But my parents encouraged me to leave Israel and try other things and said, “If you don’t go now, right now they are telling you that you will die.”

We wouldn’t accept that this was the end. My father found a clinic in Turkey that treats cancer with a method I hadn’t tried and we were hopeful could change my prognosis.

Thank God, I’ve been doing it since August.”

(5/7) “Treatment, Hope, and Faith”

“When I got to Turkey, I was in terrible condition. I had a belly that looked like I was nine months pregnant because my abdomen was filled with fluid. My spleen was filled with cancer. My scan showed a horrible picture. My body was overcome with cancerous tumors.

I had cancer in my left hip joint, which has been my downfall. It has made it difficult for me to walk, and that is where my intense pain is now.

The flight to Turkey is an hour and a half. For the first round of treatments, My dad and I spent 11 days there and returned home for 11 days. After consulting with the doctors we decided I would not spend another Shabbat in Istanbul. Instead, my treatment cycles consist of 3 days in Istanbul, 5 days home, and then 3 days in Istanbul and then a break of 12 days. I get to go home for Shabbat, which is such precious time for my family and me to be together. I travel back and forth. Luckily, that’s possible due to the geography.

The treatment seems to be helping me. But my quality of life is disrupted by the traveling.

After two months of treatment I did a PET CT, here in Israel. It showed a 70-80% regression of disease. It was my first time receiving good news in years. I feel that even though it’s so difficult, I need to continue. Perhaps it could put me into a remission where I could have quality of life and enjoy my children for years to come.

One part of me doesn’t want to believe it and just wants to give up. The pain is intense, and it would be so much easier to give up and allow myself peace; the forever kind. Pain is a horrible thing and can make you say horrible things. This pain makes me understand how brains go to dark places.

Strength-wise, it feels like I am no longer immediately dying of cancer. Obviously, I need treatment to keep reducing the cancer, but I am no longer in bed, incoherent, relying on pain medications from minute to minute.

We are hoping that this is real, but you can never know. I have been burned so many times by so many different treatments. So now, I just rely on my faith. I believe that whatever happens is for a reason and I pray that Hashem should please not let me be in pain, and let me get out of bed and run again.

To me, that would be everything.”

(6/7) “Everyday Gifts”

“I am thankful for every minute of every day. I continually say thank you to Hashem in my head. When I am in pain, I just cry. I say, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ The relief from the pain medication is a miracle from Hashem.

Stage 4 cancer like this, it’s very unusual that I have made it this far. I am a persistent patient. I’m exceptional! I refuse to give up. I keep going regardless of what doctors say. They say, “There is nothing else we can do for you.” But guess what, I’m going to find other things you can do for me. I’m going to find other options.

My instinct is to be happy. I am not always happy, and cancer can lead me to misery. My roots are my name, Ahavah Emunah- Love and Faith. That is my essence and how I really feel. I hope that people would remember me in that way. I pray that no matter what happens, my legacy will always be love and faith which truly equals happiness. I always have love and faith in my heart. Remember that I did this to stay alive, for my children so that they can have a mother that will love them on this earth. To teach them to have faith. Hopefully, that is a legacy that I can leave.

It’s easy to say these things when one is vibrant and mobile. It’s a much bigger challenge when it’s accompanied with pain and feeling your mortality. It becomes a bigger test.

Knowing that there are people that love me and are praying for me gives me strength to go on.

When I sit in my living room on the couch, I get to look out into the yard. I see the trees swinging in the breeze, and the birds on my neighbor’s roof, and I just think to myself, ‘I am lucky to see this another day.’ I can still enjoy Hashem’s creations. I went out into my garden when the sun came out a few days ago. I was able to see a tortoise egg, and some of our first flowers blooming. I wish I could do it every day. It makes me feel very blessed, like it is a gift.”

(7/7) “Always Have Hope”

“We all suffer on this earth, whether it is illness, infertility, financial, emotional; everyone has something that makes them hurt and question. Being alive is scary. We are here for a short period of time and we hope to make an impact.

I have been listening to a lot of shiurim about what comes after death. I am not scared of death. The scary part is what will happen to the people that I leave behind? How will my death leave an endless impact on my children?

Hopefully, I will have given them everything they need before it’s my time. I feel like I have close relationships with my children, each in their own way. I feel like that is because I have learned when to hold them close, and when to let them go. I hope I’m doing the best I can for my kids. They are everything to me.

Life is unpredictable and there are no guarantees. The gift of my cancer is that I had the time to appreciate my blessings, my relationships, and all that Hashem gave me.

When you are in a dark place, there is always a spark. Ask yourself what can you do with that spark. Can you make it bigger? Can you make it into a flame? Can you make it into a fire?

Because that light can lead you out from the tunnel of darkness.

There is always hope for things to get better. Always look for the potential. As you inhale your last breath, still hold onto that hope.”

Shira Lankin Sheps graduated from Hunter College School of Social Work with an MSW in clinical social work. After working in the clinical field, marketing and photojournalism, she decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community. She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience. Shira is the founder, Publisher and CEO of The Layers Project Magazine.