In the past two years in my Hanukkah columns, I've written about how although the holiday brings many familiarities, it means something different to me each year.
Now, more than ever, is that true. As Hanukkah approaches Dec. 20, I am forced to reflect back in this past year's events, what they mean to me now, and how they'll help shape my future.
At the age of 26 I got engaged, but I also fought breast cancer. I planned my wedding, but also underwent three surgeries.
This year has been, and is, the best year of my life. But it also has been the most challenging, stressful and devastating.
When I think back to Hanukkah last year, I feel like I'm looking into a small window at a different person in a different life in a different world. Sure, back then my life wasn't untouched by hardships. But it was untouched by breast cancer. And although I was with my now fiancee back then, we weren't engaged, and weren't planning our wedding.
Now, in the midst of China patterns and thank-you notes, I am a glowing bride-to-be. We've had numerous engagement parties and bridal showers. I never thought I could be this happy. Every moment has been a delicate, memorable experience, from choosing our flower arrangements to me trying on my veil. But in the middle of my happy moments, I've been dealing with the physical, emotional and mental aspects of a breast cancer diagnosis.
It seemed ironic to me that at the highest point and the healthiest time in my life, I would get cancer. I had just started running 5Ks, and wore the same jeans size I wore in high school. But my very own planet Earth, swirling joyously and carefree in space, came to an abrupt, dust-in-the-air, halt. And silence. I felt like I was waiting in a dark room, paralyzed by fear and shock, unable to move, unable to see the next step, unable to see any sort of light. That was April.
And then what?
Do we move forward with planning the wedding, or do we wonder if we're having the wedding? Do we imagine what kind of treatments I'll have? What do we do? What do we think? What do we say?
When I think back at those months that followed I have a hard time believing I went through it all. Now, it's December, and I'm starting to think about our annual family Hanukkah party, and the party my fiancee, Sean, and I will throw at our home, for the first time, in which I will actually be making latkes! (A sight to see, I'm sure.)
In no way are my health issues over, especially after recently learning that I carry a rare genetic mutation that makes me susceptible to cancer. But with three surgeries later and a "clean bill of health," I can say that this specific breast cancer journey is behind me.
It's amazing that my journey was so short - about six months in total. But that doesn't take into account the lifetime I still face of mammograms, MRIs and ultrasounds, and the fear of recurrence, or getting another new breast cancer.
In no way was my journey emotionally short, though; each day felt like a year as we waited for test results, surgeries, more tests and more test results. Time moved at a snail's pace. And why wouldn't it? I was waiting to hear, every day, how my life would change.
Waiting was excruciating, and it made the last six months feel like six decades. But I was lucky in the fact that my cancer was caught so early that I didn't need chemotherapy or radiation. When I say my journey was "short," I am thinking about the many women who face breast cancer for years. No two diagnoses and situations are alike, and no two treatment plans are alike. I was, and am lucky, in that my cancer was treated and today I am able to get back to life.
So what makes Hanukkah this year?
I've always been an optimistic person. Fighting my first cancer (funny how it became my "first" cancer) at age 12 did that to me. I became strong, and decided I wanted to enjoy every moment of life.
So while breast cancer didn't "make" me a better or stronger person, because I believe I was strong before, it gave me something else. That's not to say I don't have my moments. Especially the past few months. I've had the crying and screaming and case of the "why me?"s. I've been mad at the world and called it unfair. I've compared my life to others and wondered why other women my age got to be healthy. And trust me, I still have those moments. But I decided, from the moment I got diagnosed, that I was going to turn this situation into something better.
Although I couldn't control getting cancer, I could control how I handled it and how I lived my life. I started a blog. I gave an interview on the Lifetime website for the movie "Five." I decided to raise awareness of breast cancer in young women. I decided to give money to research and resources. I decided I would tell my story because I didn't want to hide it.
This experience has taught me that I have some incredible people in my life. My family and friends have reached out and supported me in ways I could have never imagined. And my amazing fiancee, Sean, has stood by my side, from the time I told him I found a lump, to the day my doctor called me at 8:30 in the morning on a warm April morning to tell me the news. From the debilitating pain of having a tissue expander under my chest wall, to the preparation and recovery from my surgeries. To today.
In previous years, Hanukkah has always been about celebrating family, friends, food and life. It's about our crazy family traditions and reflections on yet another year gone by.
This year I'll plan my outfit weeks ahead of time, like I always do. I'll save my Weight Watchers points so I can "nosh" (Yiddush for "snack") on latkes and chocolate. I'll look forward to hugging and kissing my family. I'll try to imagine what gifts I'll take home from the gift game - socks or hot chocolate? We'll sing around the piano our traditional Hanukkah songs, and light the many Menorahs all at once. We'll look on with awe as the candles burn bright and we remember who we are as a people and why Judaism is so meaningful to us.
Today I look to this holiday with hope and inspiration. This year, I'm blessed. This year I'll be me. Sure, a new me, a changed me. But me. I'm still here and I'm doing just fine.
Hanukkah, and all that's associated with it, is my soft pink pillow, that even through life's scary thunderstorms, remains soft.
And I'm a tree. In the rain I get soft and peel. In the wind I sway, and maybe even fall over. In the lighting I split in half. But the sun always comes out again, and the seasons always change, and I'm still standing.
During Hanukkah this year, I'll be my tree, with my soft pink pillow beside me, resting atop my roots, lodged deep in the ground.
Thank you for opening your minds and hearts to my experiences. Happy holidays, and L'Chaim! (To life!)
Marjorie Stromberg is the health and human services reporter for The Sentinel.