I chose not to cover my head for this moment. This is not a shallow issue for me. I wanted to make the point that my breast cancer hadn't gone away.
I'd wavered back and forth for a week about whether to wear my wig (no, with it on I look sort of normal); a hat (not good for public speaking, people can't see your face under the brim); a scarf or simply au naturel. In the end, given some slight hair growth despite the chemo, I chose not to wear anything. I tried being in public uncovered for a few days and got no odd looks or unpleasant comments, even from strangers. That helped me decide I had just enough scalp coverage to make an unspoken statement that there was at least one woman in the audience currently in treatment for, and living with, advanced breast cancer. I hope doing so made a powerful point and that I didn't look simply unfinished.
Here is what I said:
Erev tov – good evening all! My name is Jill Cohen and I am proud to be a Life member of Hadassah since 1999. (This generated a round of applause.)
Next week starts the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah. It’s a chance to begin a fresh start, to put the past behind us and look to the future.
There are many other “new years” in our lives: We celebrate birthdays. Children and teachers recently started a new school year. January 1st marks the secular new year. Tu b’Shvat is the Jewish new year for trees.
And I celebrate a very personal kind of new year. Every August 20th is the anniversary of the day I was diagnosed with stage IV, advanced, metastatic breast cancer.
Tonight we’ll hear about the impact of breast cancer, and how Hadassah helps. As a woman living with breast cancer since the age of 39, I can tell you that cancer taught me how to live a “new normal.” Every new year that I live with advanced cancer is another year of possible new treatments, new drugs, new hope for longer survival. Research from Hadassah in Israel will help women like me in the USA.
In this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim ( (Deuteronomy 30:19), we read: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life.”
How can you choose life in the coming new year? Celebrate this new year by prioritizing your health. See your doctor, your dentist, your eye doctor. Schedule that colonoscopy! (Laughter from the audience) Women, get your mammogram.
A fresh new year brings the opportunity to start new things, create new habits, and follow new directions. This year, be zealous about your own health. This new year, celebrate yourself by making you the priority.
L’shanah tova tikateivu v’teichateimu
May you be inscribed and sealed for a good new year.
I owe a debt to Kathy-Ellen Kups, whose words inspired me to explore the connection between living with breast cancer and starting a new year.