This piece was first published as ‘Rebbetzin and fellow women with breast cancer share their stories, reap emotional rewards” in JWeekly.
As the wife of a congregational rabbi in San Francisco, Erin Hyman was at first reluctant to let the synagogue community know she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. But thanks, in part, to a literary project, her reticence has been replaced by openness.
In fact, Hyman — whose husband is Rabbi Micah Hyman of Congregation Beth Sholom — is sharing her experience fighting cancer not only with congregants, but with the public at large in a newly published anthology. “The Day My Nipple Fell Off,” a collection of essays by Bay Area young women living with the disease, was published in May.
Hyman, a freelance editor and former literature professor, contributed an essay and edited the anthology. She and others will read from the book at Lit Crawl on Saturday, Oct. 19 in San Francisco.
The anthology is a project of BAYS, Bay Area Young Survivors, a support group for women who receive a breast cancer diagnosis at age 45 or younger. Only 5 percent of all breast cancer cases diagnosed each year are in women under 40, according to the American Cancer Society; however, the disease tends to be more aggressive in this group, which has a lower five-year survival rate (85 percent vs. 90 percent).
BAYS was founded in 2004 to address the specific needs and concerns of younger women with breast cancer, such as fertility preservation, according to Hyman, who currently serves as BAYS president.
“At first I wanted to be very private. I felt vulnerable,” said Hyman, 41, reflecting on her diagnosis. But her initial approach changed once she realized that by sharing and writing about what she was going through, she could engage in a meaningful dialogue about health and illness with people who genuinely cared about her.
Hyman started a blog (bmatzav.blogspot.com) as a way of coping with the disease and maintaining control of the information flow about her illness and treatment.
“I wanted to reflect my experience through a Jewish lens,” the Palm Springs native explained. “I wanted to tell people what was OK to ask me about, and what wasn’t. For instance, I don’t want people to ask me about my cancer at Kiddush, especially when my children are right there with me. I want to keep the synagogue a spiritual space.”
What she did tell people was that in December 2011, four years after she moved to San Francisco with her husband and two young sons, she discovered a lump in her breast. Tests showed that it was breast cancer, and that there were also some smaller tumors that she had not detected. Hyman underwent a double mastectomy and surgical reconstruction of her breasts. She had chemotherapy and is on anti-estrogen therapy. Recently, she shared with friends and supporters that she is still living with cancer.
Just as Hyman had initially been averse to telling the Beth Sholom community about her breast cancer, she was also less than enthusiastic about joining a support group. “Before I went to my first BAYS meeting, my only experience with support groups was in seeing them parodied in film and on TV. I had vague apprehensions about being subjected to tuna casserole, oversharing, or pious invocation of Jesus,” she wrote in the introduction to “The Day My Nipple Fell Off.”
“But what I discovered was a room full of women my age who were funny and engaging, and who just blew me away,” Hyman said.
Click here to read more.
© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.