Survivorship, Activism, and Cross-Cultural Relationships

By Ruth Ebenstein

I was nursing my baby when I got the bomb-drop.Survivorship, Activism, and Cross-Cultural Relationships

“That lump is cancer. If the pathology report comes back negative, I’m going to think it’s a mistake.”

Breast cancer? Mixed in with mother’s milk? In addition to my baby, I had two others sons under five and two young adult stepdaughters. In an instant, my life plans crashed. Forget a fourth child. Would I even get to rear the ones that I had? I was still mourning a friend I’d lost to breast cancer a few weeks earlier; she was in her 40s, around my age. I despaired, unable to access any hope. Was a good outcome even possible?

Three weeks later, I had a lumpectomy and an axillary dissection, to remove lymph nodes from my armpit. While the doctors tried to decide if I needed chemotherapy, I looked for a support group. I’d heard that women survived better/longer/stronger if they’d had support, and I was keen on that. But most of all, I was looking for a friend.

I’d always been a connector. As a girl, I had embraced babysitters as friends. I connected with everyone: long chats with the bus driver to school, discussions with the librarian over sandwiches at my house (yes, she agreed to come over!), and even my mother’s friends. Friendships were one of my great joys. And now was no different. I wanted women in my life who understood what I was going through. Of course, I did not want my old friends to get breast cancer! But I did hunger to find true companions in breastcancerland. Women with whom I could laugh, complain about hot flashes, share my fears, gather strategies for coping.

And then this email turned up in my inbox. “Would you like to join an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group?” I wondered if perhaps something good could come out of something bad.

At the first support group meeting, a mother-earth woman with warm brown eyes came over to introduce herself. Although Ibtisam Erekat was a devout Palestinian Muslim woman hailing from the West Bank and I was an American-Israeli Orthodox Jewish woman hailing from Jerusalem, we discovered that we had very similar life narratives. We were both religiously observant and we had both married in our thirties, late in our respective traditional communities. Each of our husbands was a divorcé who was several years our senior and had brought children into the marriage. We both had birthed three children in three years. And we were both diagnosed with breast cancer while nursing our babies, which was rather uncommon.  I had never met anyone who shared so many critical elements of my life story. “Same here,” said Ibtisam at our first meeting, in impressive English she had gleaned off the television. I soon discovered that we were both fearless, outgoing, daring. The conversation flowed and we cracked each other up.

In 2012, we traveled together to Bosnia as part of an Israeli-Palestinian delegation of breast cancer survivors. The mission: to meet and learn from other breast cancer survivors who also cross religious, ethnic and cultural lines to support each other. On that trip, many incredible things happened. I felt a tremendous connection with the Bosnian women, women who remain my friends today, despite the challenges of a language barrier. I also developed beautiful friendships with the Palestinian breast cancer survivors, facilitated by the intimacy of togetherness and being miles away from the bloody headlines and turmoil of our region. In particular, my friendship with Ibtisam blossomed. Over the next months and years, we grew to be kin; our children, spouses, and extended families grew close, too.

I realized that this inspiring friendship story ought to be shared. So I did. I crafted a piece about our trip to Bosnia for Tablet, which won an award. I wrote another essay about our friendship for the Atlantic. Penning a memoir was a natural next step.  I’m working on that manuscript right now, with literary agents waiting to read my book proposal.

In 2014 I started to do public speaking across the US to share the positive things that emerged from my breast cancer experience. The cross-cultural friendships, the growth, the peace and health activism—and the hope. Most remarkably, the incredible sisterhood with Ibtisam Erekat.

Through my public speaking, writing and activism, I’ve made friends with breast cancer survivors who hail from Mexico City to Mostar, Herzegovina, from Abu Dis in the West Bank to an ultra-Orthodox community in Israel. Breast cancer has taught me how to connect in ways that I did not even know were possible. My hope is to spread this message to others: our real enemy is illness, not man-made conflict. And the greatest lesson of all? “Other” is actually just like me.

Triage Cancer
info@triagecancer.org