After being told in a phone call from her surgeon that she again had breast cancer and that it had spread to her lymph nodes, Judy Lazar of Manhasset became hysterical. “I was angry and petrified. And I was scared,” she recalls. “I kept saying, ‘I’m not having chemotherapy.’ My husband, Joel, who is terrific, didn’t know what to do with me.”
So he called the home of the family’s rabbi, Abner Bergman of Temple Judea of Manhasset. The rabbi’s wife tracked him down at a meeting.
“The next thing I knew, he was sitting on my bed and he stayed there for hours, calming me down,” says Lazar, 56. “I guess he said all the right things. At one point I was so angry that I said to him, ‘So tell me, where is your God?’ And he said to me, ‘In your doctors, in your family, in your friends, in all the people you love.’ That was the right answer.
“The next day, I was in the doctor’s office to get chemotherapy and radiation and to take control of my life.”
Rabbi Bergman called her often during the six months of chemotherapy and visited when she was hospitalized, Lazar says.
“It’s important to have people support you and listen to you and not run away, which some people do when they hear you have cancer,” she says.
That was Lazar’s message last week during a meeting at Temple Judea to plan how best to develop a series of programs dealing with women’s health issues. The Federation of Employment and Guidance Service on Long Island organized the meeting and has received a $40,000 grant from UJA-Federation to establish breast cancer support groups in synagogues on the Island.
The women at the meeting said they planned to invite neighboring synagogues to join with them to develop programs and a support group.
Kathy Rosenthal, coordinator of community and family services for FEGS, said the organization would like to expand beyond the issue of cancer to develop a women’s health initiative.
“We want to extend it to menopause, domestic violence, eating disorders, PMS, nutrition and insurance problems,” she said. “And we want to attract both the affiliated and the unaffiliated. The purpose is to make women empowered to take charge of their health.”
When someone pointed out that similar programs abound on Long Island, Lazar said she attended one and felt very uncomfortable.
“The women in the room were saying that their husbands had left them and that people were deserting them,” she recalled. “I said to myself that I didn’t belong there. I am more comfortable sitting here and discussing this in my own synagogue or in another synagogue.”
Another breast cancer survivor, Shelly Feig of Dix Hills, said that once she was diagnosed, she read books and spoke with people and “created my own support group.”
Pat Bloomgarden of Muttowntown said Temple Judea recently ran a series of programs dealing with how to cope with intermarriage, aging parents and the loss of a spouse.
“Three members of the congregation told stories and out of that there was a discussion,” she said. “That may be the way to go about this. … There are women in our temple who are survivors and who could be mentors.”
Bloomgarden added that at the coping programs, young mothers spoke of the stress from “their job, their family, their children — and that too is a women’s health issue.”
Linda Bergman, the rabbi’s wife, noted that “stress is an issue that cuts across all ages.”
Feig, who also works for FEGS, said she had meetings set up with 15 synagogues on Long Island in the coming weeks to discuss how they wished to approach this subject.
Evelyn Roth, executive director of FEGS’ Long Island Division, said she hoped the initiative would help create many clusters of synagogues across Long Island that would deal with these issues. “This seems to be an idea whose time has come,” she said.
Roth said the idea for this women’s health initiative grew out of a three-year breast cancer grant FEGS received from UJA-Federation. The funds provided education, outreach and counseling to women at the organization’s five family counseling centers on Long Island. Social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists staff the centers in Syosset, Hempstead, Smithtown, Central Islip and Center Moriches.Although the funding for that initiative ended, Roth said the programs continue with the help of a $20,000 grant this year from New York Race for the Cure.
UJA-Federation also provided $120,000 in grants over four years to a cancer support group in New York, the SHARE Project. Although that funding ended last year, its director of programs, Susan Rosenthal, said the programming was continuing at the Samuel Field Y in Little Neck, the Kings Bay Y in Brooklyn and Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, L.I.
In addition, she said SHARE was continuing to maintain hot-lines to provide women with confidential peer counseling from more than 100 specially trained women volunteers who themselves are survivors of breast or ovarian cancer. (The hot-line for breast cancer is 212 382-2111; for ovarian cancer, 212 719-1204.)
“We also did breast care awareness outreach and encouraged women to do early detection,” said Rosenthal. “It’s surprising how there continues to be a lot of shame associated with this disease. In the more traditional communities, you will find more silence, more of a stigma and shame.
“Older women still … are scared and they struggle with why this happened to them.”
Rosenthal, a survivor of leukemia, said that women after treatment often develop a “new set of feelings. You feel depressed and scared. There was no one around to tell me that 15 years ago.
“Now at the Samuel Field Y, we have a post-treatment group where women can see they are not alone with those feelings. In fact, we have a post-treatment group for women with breast cancer that will be starting there in January.”