My family’s story with cancer

February 20, 2018 1:07 pm
Jennifer Ouaknine

Jennifer Ouaknine, Executive Director, ICRF

This year, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has reached a new level of meaning to me, as my sister Judy was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer on October 19th, 2017. My beautiful sister went for her routine mammogram. The technician called the doctor in, who immediately told my sister “We are happy you caught it early.” I received a phone call immediately after this appointment from my sister, very composed and said “I think I have breast cancer.” I immediately ran to my co-workers and told them I was rushing to be by my sister’s side. I distinctly remember saying the words, “I knew there was a reason why I came to work at ICRF.” I accompanied my sister to her family doctor, along with her eldest daughter Maytal, to get the ball in motion. I was the strong one at the appointment. I was the one that was going to make everything better… at least that is what I told myself. My sister Judy was terrified; the “C” word is so scary. She was going to fight this, kick this cancer to the curb. Her physician said to us, “You are going to be ok, you will not die from this.” This alone brought us to tears.

On her first appointment at Princess Margaret Hospital for the official diagnosis, Judy was surrounded by an entourage of family members, acting as a much needed layer of protection to soften the blow of the sharp, terrifying words. Judy was officially diagnosed with stage one breast cancer, then we needed to know if it had spread into her lymph nodes. Throughout her previous diagnostic testing, the whole family was certain that there was no way she could have breast cancer. When we learned of her diagnosis—and the ensuing lumpectomy, healing, and radiation she’d undergo—we were devastated. I remember getting the news and feeling utterly helpless. I didn’t know what to say or do. I wished I could save her from it. At a loss, I even offered her health and nutrition advice! Fortunately, my sister is a resilient and patient person. She has helped me understand how friends and family can best support someone with a recent cancer diagnosis.

Here are some of the things I have learned:

  1. Stay connected – Call, text, visit more – people with a recent diagnosis don’t necessarily need or want to be alone.
  2. Be a good listener – In our desire to connect, we might be tempted to share a breast cancer story about a friend, or a friend of a friend, or our second cousin twice removed…you get the idea. In the hope that our story will bring encouragement, or offer new information, we actually hijack the focus from our loved one and shift it to someone not present. Remember: every individual is different and so is every diagnosis and treatment plan.
  3. Eliminate pressure – In our attempt to be supportive, we can put undue pressure on our loved one who is battling cancer. “You’re so brave,” or “You’re so strong,” or “You are so inspiring”…sound familiar? While these are important affirmations, they may also make your loved one hesitant to be vulnerable with you—as though they have to be strong all the time.

My lesson: I need to balance my motivational comments with reassuring my sister that it is okay to be negative, silent, and withdrawn if that is how she is feeling. I don’t need to urge her to “be strong” if she isn’t feeling up to it. Judy will be ok, she will survive and kick this cancer. My sisters diagnosis has only deepened and solidified my commitment to ICRF and the mission to harness Israel’s educational and scientific resources in the fight against cancer.  Together we can continue to find treatments and cures for all forms of cancer!


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