'My Cancer Was a Gift'

Cancer validated my compassion and helped me show others that death is a chance to teach our greatest lesson.

This article first ran in the October/November issue of Moment Magazine.

I stood by the hospital bed of a friend who was dying of cancer. He wanted to know why he was sick, why he must die, why he must leave his children and grandchildren. As his rabbi, I was armed with few answers. I could tell him that it was part of God's plan or I could confess to him that I did not know. Neither seemed like the right response.

So, instead, we exchanged stories about chemotherapy. My hair was just beginning to grow back after a bout with lymphoma; his, wispy to start, was gone from the drugs that had targeted all the fast-growing cells in his body. They had done a thorough job on his hair but not on his cancer.

We talked about the strange gratitude we felt for the medicinal poison as it coursed through our veins. There was a moment of solidarity, then sadness returned. Battle stories are not nostalgic when they end in death.

"But at least you understand," he said. It reminded me anew that my cancer was a gift; as a rabbi, it validated my compassion. People knew that I really did understand, that my family and I were not unscathed. Needles seemed forever to be dangling from my arm and I was always being shoved into metal tubes for scans and pictures and tests. Enduring the elaborate technology of survival creates a kind of tribal solidarity.


"So," he asked, "why did it happen to you?"

Did I get cancer for a reason? Four years before my lymphoma I had undergone surgery for a brain tumor, thankfully benign. Five years before that, after the birth of our daughter, my wife had cancer and surgery that left her unable to bear more children. After each experience, people would ask what it meant. Now someone was asking not out of curiosity or even spiritual hunger, but spiritual urgency.

We looked at each other for a long time. I know what it does not mean, I told him. It was not a punishment. The calculus of reward and punishment in this world is surely more complex than sin equals cancer. One thing is clear: the cancer is not only about you. Those who care for you suffer as well. The ripples do not end.

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