Although it rarely makes a difference to me, most people feel more comfortable knowing how to pronounce my name. It's "gar-ee"—the first syllable rhymes with star, or scar. I have three scars, to be exact, and they are mine.
Picture a clock superimposed on a beautiful breast. My breasts were never standout, but since I'm telling the story, picture a beautiful breast. On the left breast at 12 o'clock there is a scar hovering where a large fibroadenoma was removed. This large tissue mass was allegedly non-cancerous but could change over time. At 2 o'clock, a small scar signals where three sentinel nodes were taken, the result of which was the blessed all-clear regarding terrifying lymph node involvement. At 4 o'clock—a thin line remains on the surface of the surgically eliminated, early-diagnosed, good-prognosis, estrogen-based cancer.
Four zaps/five days a week/seven weeks. Arms in reverse stirrups over my head, I am in awe of the growing hair under my arms. I am thankful to have it and shocked at how naturally it grows after being mowed down for 34 years. As this phase of my treatment begins, I wonder what other people think about while on the radiation table. These have been the deepest moments in my sentient experience, and I want to know how it is for everyone. It's too personal a question to ask my compatriots in the waiting room. What would I say—How do you organize your thoughts, Mr. Man-with-face-ablaze? Do you pray, lovely young-bald-mother-with-kids-at-hand? Who here listens to the music—Enya is better than Frank, no, not Motown. Old-lady-in-wheelchair, do you weep? Do you plan your day, executive-woman-with-one-breast? Do you recall other quiet moments in your life, Mr. Veteran Marine, Sir? Do you tremble with fear? Does your chest heave? Is the table the only place that you are completely alone and relaxed? What else do we have in common?
Zap one: Hear oh Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is One: an ancient prayer said by Jews both daily and in redemptive dark moments, minutes before death. An affirmation that God is present. God is here in my cancer moments. God is in the doctors who treat me, the surgeon who cut me, the therapists who heal me, the nurses who prep me, the radiologists who zap me. God is in these buildings, in these minutes, in the radiation and in the guiding hand of my father, himself succumbing to cancer less than ten months ago. God is in me.
Zap two: Blessed are you, sovereign of the universe, for bringing me to this moment. This prayer is often reserved for happy occasions with family and friends gathered round. A prayer said to welcome a new holiday or first fruits. A prayer that says, I am Here, thank you, on a table receiving radiation–the good kind?–in this moment. And I am grateful.
Zap three: I love my family and I pray: I love my husband, I love my Hannah, I love my Molly. My Molly my Hannah my Michael my Molly my Michael my Hannah. Whoops, where am I in this equation? I change mantra number three quickly: Gari Michael Hannah Molly Molly Hannah Michael Gari Hannah Michael Molly Gari. I am an integral part of this foursome. Don't take me out yet.
Zap four: I panic! I only have three scars and each meditation focuses on a surgical site as if my thoughts could harness and direct the radiation. If I don't have a mental scenario then the radiation will zap my breast randomly, uncontrolled. I am desperately bound to live the lesson I must learn. There is no control and I cannot harness the destructive radiation used to kill any (and I pray, all) stray cancer cells. I am forced to live in this moment, in this day. Zap my entire breast, caress it with deadly radiation but please give me today, HaYom…om… om.
An acquaintance asked if I would be one of those women who defines herself via her cancer. What's up with that question? Even if you don't wear pink ribbons the rest of your life, you cannot come out of this the way you entered. Will I advocate for accessible and reliable mammograms for all women? Will I take on cavalier corporations who tell me that their levels of toxins are acceptable? Will endless fundraisers, galas, conferences and seminars beckon? Will I quietly write checks and act as though this never happened?
Will I wait for your call, telling me your news?
I run out in the morning, counting down my days. Only five more zaps, I tell my girls, only three, only two. Tomorrow is my last one. On the last day, I whisper goodbye to the table, the faces, the sounds, the gowns, the machinery, the waiting, the stirrups, the creams, the doctors, and the nurses.
My radiation has ended.
And today, three scars remain on my now beautiful, standout breast—my constellation of love and faith.
Gari Julius Weilbacher is 19-year cancer thriver, mother and wife. She is also a life coach, encouraging individuals to bring their story, Torah and passion to an ailing world.