Living and Breathing in the After
We tend to remember exactly where we were when we hear news that forever changes our lives.
I’ll never forget sitting in my car in March 2019, the day after Purim, with my four-week-old sleeping soundly behind me. My pulmonologist, Dr. P, was calling- I had been expecting his call any minute. Two days earlier I had gone for a second opinion about the horrific cough I’d been struggling with since my second trimester five months earlier. I’d been told it was asthma, pneumonia, and I had this gnawing sense there was more going on.
“Rachel,” he begins after a pause in our chatting warm-up, “I spoke to two of my radiology colleagues here, and we think you have a tumor in your lungs.”
There it was.
A new line of demarcation dividing life up until that point and what would come next. The pre and post. The before-and-after.
We all have before-and-afters; the things we experience that, when we look back on the list of where we’ve been and what we’ve faced, these moments are in bold, maybe even a different font. They have a little asterisk next to them, noting that this thing didn’t just happen to me. It became me.
Sometimes we don’t see that line of demarcation until after-the-fact. Other times we know it in the moment, and as Dr. P elaborated, I could feel the line being drawn. Five minutes ago just became part of a previous chapter.
Dr. P shared that they were confident that the tumor wasn’t cancerous and could be removed with surgery. As he calmly described steps for further testing and surgery planning, I stared out into the distance of the quiet road in front of me. It didn’t feel surreal or an out-of-body experience, it felt so real. This is happening. On a certain level, it felt less like he was delivering news and more like he was sharing a confirmation of something I’d already known.
We hung up. I called my people and cried. I could have stayed in that spot for hours to process what I’d just learned, but Shabbos was in five hours and I had errands to do. I still remember bumping into people in the supermarket and somehow making small-talk; it’s amazing how we can compartmentalize.
My eyes have never felt heavier than they did when I lit Shabbos candles that evening. I held it together during the meal, laughing with my family as we ate and talked. Later that night, when my kids were sleeping, I went into each of their rooms, sat at the foot of their beds, and sobbed.
More tests and procedures confirmed that I had a benign typical lung carcinoid- an extremely rare tumor that is not usually picked up in early stages. I feel fortunate that I developed post-obstructive pneumonia- it served as a memo that something was wrong, pushing me to advocate and get necessary imaging.
On May 1, 2019, when I was ten weeks postpartum I had a lobectomy; the tumor was removed along with the lower lobe of my right lung. Thanks to the modern technology of laparoscopic surgery, I was discharged two days later with a relatively small incision. While it did take another three months for my cough to fully clear, over the last year I have regained the ability to breathe without struggle, something I don’t take for granted after being unable to for ten months.
Four months after surgery I ran a half-marathon. It was hot, I was slow, I called for a pep talk at mile 11- but it was the most meaningful race I’ve run. For the homestretch, three of my kids ran with me and we were able to cross the finish line holding hands. It was uplifting for me that after seeing me sick my kids could see me active and literally share in that milestone of recovery.
There are heartwarming aspects of this journey that continue to inspire me as I look back. The way I was randomly connected to two women who had eerily similar stories as me- same rare diagnosis, same age, same time in pregnancy- and they had gotten through it and held my terrified hand. The pre-surgery text telling us that my cousin, an IDF officer, went with part of his platoon to the Kotel to daven for me. The way my relatives stepped in to help my family so that I could focus on getting better. The caring doctors, nurses- some who weren’t even on the case but stopped by because someone told them to keep an eye on me. I truly didn’t have to go at this alone.
This experience has recalibrated my life in many different ways. It broke me and it cracked me open, softening my armor and creating less buffer in the way I relate to life. I used to be one of those people who didn’t cry easily; when I was leaving for seminary and the airport was a sobfest I was reading a newspaper with my feet up. Nowadays, life moves me on a different level- sometimes to tears- in deeper, more profound ways. I feel joy more deeply, and I laugh harder too.
It says in the Modeh Ani prayer upon rising
“שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה..”
“For You [God] have returned within me my soul with compassion”
This line has become more personal for me as the word for breath is נְשִׁימָה. When I wake up I try to take a moment to remember and appreciate the way my breath was graciously returned to me. All the ways I was supported through that challenging time. All the gifts I got along the way. And all the ways the experience continues to energize me today in my sense of purpose, connection, and meaning in life.
Rachel Hercman, LCSW is a psychotherapist specializing in relationship and sexual health, self-esteem, and trauma. She has a private practice in Manhattan and is a popular speaker in communities, universities, and professional trainings. Rachel has been a featured expert on various websites, including Marriage.com, the Better Sex Blog, and she currently blogs on rachelhercman.com. Rachel is the Clinical Director and Editor at The Layers Project Magazine.