When Shoshana Polakoff, 40, received an unexpected breast cancer diagnosis three years ago, the mother of three young children needed extra support. Her friends, family and Jewish community in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan immediately stepped up.
They organized help with after-school childcare, packed school lunches for her kids and sent her little notes of encouragement while Polakoff endured trying cancer treatments.
“I felt pounds lighter and overwhelmed by the chesed that mobilized so quickly,” said Polakoff, using the Hebrew term for kindness. “And the practical help was such an incredible gift.”
Too often, however, friends and loved ones of cancer patients are at a loss for how to respond when someone close to them is diagnosed with cancer.
“Often they feel just as thrown into this new reality as the woman herself and are not sure what to do next,” said Adina Fleischmann, chief services officer for Sharsheret, the national Jewish breast cancer and ovarian cancer organization.
This is especially the case for young people who might never have had a family member or friend diagnosed with cancer before.
Fleischmann — whose organization offers extensive resources for cancer patients, ranging from emotional support, mental health counseling and education to financial subsidies for women and their families facing breast and ovarian cancer — has some guidance for what to say, how to reach out and what kind of help might be appropriate to provide in the face of a friend or family member’s cancer diagnosis.
It’s all about providing chizuk – Hebrew for strength – to the person facing cancer.
1. Establish the “Kvetching Order”
The “Kvetching Order,” based on a concept called the Ring Theory developed by clinical psychologist Susan Silk, dictates that those close to someone struggling with a cancer diagnosis offer only support to the cancer patient, and any kvetching about their own stress outward.
Thus, the person with cancer is at the center of a circle surrounded by a ring of her or his most intimate friends and loved ones. More distant concentric rings include other friends, acquaintances, more distant family and community members.
Colloquially known as “comfort in, dump out,” the Kvetching Order establishes a flow of support directed toward the person facing cancer.
2. Be clear and specific with offers of help
Support can look and feel different to different people facing cancer; each person’s needs and life circumstances are unique. When younger women are diagnosed with cancer — as often is the case with ovarian or breast cancers, where 50% of new diagnoses are in women under age 63 — patients often need extra help managing their responsibilities as parents and/or career professionals.
“Let the woman guide the journey,” Fleischmann says of the cancer patient. “Follow her lead.”
Sharsheret suggests offering concrete, practical assistance, such as offering to take the patient’s child to after-school activities or helping with homework. Maybe offer to come over to help clean the house, do laundry, or pick up groceries and make dinner for the family.
“But give the woman the feeling of control,” Fleischmann said. “Let her be in control of your support.”
Thus, a concrete suggestion like, “Can I bring you pizza for dinner on Wednesday?” is better than a vague offer of “What can I do to help?”
3. Check in often but don’t expect a response
By all means reach out to the person facing cancer. But if they don’t respond to your phone calls, emails or texts, don’t be put off.
“Sometimes the woman may not have the time or energy to respond,” Fleischmann said. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue reaching out. “She will appreciate knowing that you’re thinking of her.”
Polakoff found small gestures particularly meaningful.
“Little things meant a lot,” she said. “Like just a note that said, ‘I’m thinking of you. Have a good Shabbos.’”
4. Leave cancer out of it sometimes and just be with them
Kristen Harvey, who at 23 was faced with an ovarian cancer diagnosis for the second time, said it was important to have friends around her with whom she could talk about the future.
“Just being there was the best thing,” said Harvey, who recently graduated from college and lives in Michigan. “We didn’t need to do anything. I appreciated when people came over and we just hung out and watched a movie.”
Alexis Wilson, a teacher in Jupiter, Florida, said her friendships were essential during her breast cancer treatment. Before starting chemotherapy, her friends threw her a big party to which everyone showed up in different-colored wigs and decorated her yard with signs.
“My friends played a big role,” said Wilson, 39. “I felt like I wasn’t alone.”
5. Continue your support throughout someone’s cancer journey
For some women, “maintenance treatment” can last for many years beyond the active treatments of chemotherapy, radiation or surgery. Women living with metastatic breast cancer, for example, usually continue treatment throughout their lives.
Fleischmann recommends checking in with a woman along every step of her cancer journey: not just the period of active treatment, but also during maintenance treatment, survivorship, and if she is living with metastatic or advanced cancer.
“It’s nice to know my friends and family continued to reach out once I was done with treatment,” Harvey said. “Back to normal doesn’t mean life is ever normal.”
There are often heightened emotional needs around anniversaries of certain cancer diagnoses or treatment dates, Fleischmann said, so marking these dates could be important.
6. Make sure you have your own support system
If you’re particularly close to the person with cancer, you may experience feelings of being overwhelmed yourself. It’s important to take care of your own emotional well-being and not dismiss it in the face of someone else’s more pressing illness.
“As a caregiver, you can be very easily drained without your own coping mechanisms,” Fleischmann said.
Make sure to take care of yourself physically and emotionally so that you have the capacity to attend to your friend or loved one’s needs.
7. Talk to your healthcare provider and safeguard your own health
Even while supporting a loved one or friend with breast or ovarian cancer, it’s important to safeguard your own health.
The BRCA genetic mutation that causes breast cancer and ovarian cancer is much more common among Ashkenazi Jewish women than in the general U.S. population. About 1 in 40 Ashkenazi Jewish women and men carry the mutation, compared to 1 in 400 in the general population. Ashkenazi Jewish men are also at elevated risk for melanoma and prostate and pancreatic cancer.
“Talk to your healthcare provider,” Fleischmann said. “Those whose family members are facing hereditary breast and ovarian cancer should speak with their doctor or genetic counselor to see how this may affect them, too, and learn about appropriate testing and precautions.”
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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.
Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary
By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”
Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)
Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station
This is a developing story.
(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.
An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.
Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.
The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.
The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.
Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.
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