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I Was Diagnosed with Cancer in the Middle of a Global Health Crisis

I Was Diagnosed with Cancer in the Middle of a Global Health Crisis

Red paper heart against an orange background with a white line through it like an echo cardiogram

As the anesthesia mask came down, just a few months after my 30th birthday, I said goodbye to my old body. An ultrasound, family history, and medical uncertainty forced my hand; "It might be cancer," my doctor worried. Two hours later, I woke up in an aching, unfamiliar body. All of which, perhaps, would have been unremarkable if the world, too, hadn’t become so unfamiliar itself.

Two weeks earlier, as COVID-19 first caught the wind and jumped oceans, I ricocheted between my responsibilities as a Hillel rabbi at UCLA and officiating lifecycle events. A cancer diagnosis cannot slow the momentum of a rabbi's calendar, and shelter-in-place restrictions had not yet come to Los Angeles. 

Eight days before surgery, at a funeral for a woman my mother's age, I held a broken family as I worried mine would soon mourn me. A few days later, in a session I teach on Judaism x Hip Hop, I emphasized the sanctity of life instilled by both the Torah and rapper Childish Gambino. That weekend, I stood under a chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy, remembering a bride's late father and worrying my 3-year-old daughter would face the same fate.

The morning before my surgery, at a baby naming for a little boy my son's age, we thanked God, "...for giving us life, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this moment." Those often-said words of gratitude had never held such a multifaceted meaning. As the baby’s parents cradled him, the newlyweds kissed, and the family mourned, my fears melted, and a sense of love – and God – overpowered me. 

Yet nothing could prevent my brain from uncontrollably imagining doomsday scenarios. One second, I'm singing Alicia Keys in the mirror; the next, I’m wondering, "Will my kids remember me?” Another moment I'm preparing to officiate a wedding, the next thinking, "We're only 30. She'll remarry, right?”

Suddenly I stood in the valley of the shadow of death, and I did fear harm. Cancer, with COVID-19 looming in the background, had wholly shattered any illusion of security I held. As my mind developed future family photos without me, we sheltered in place together for the most intense and wonderful family time we have ever known.

In the book of Isaiah, amidst great upheaval, God admits to Israel, "I hid My face from you; But with kindness everlasting, I will take you back in love" (54:8). The uncertainty of COVID-19, and my cancer diagnosis, have made the world feel like God's face is hidden. In times like these, I crave the biblical God who heals, but who, inconveniently, I don't believe in. The more I look, though, the more I see the God I do believe in.

I marvel at the colorful realization of a child's imagination come to life on the sidewalk. I cherish my 3-year-old's magnetic attraction to colorful flowers, enchantment with rocks, and exuberance when spotting a palm tree. I'm reminded of childhood as we spot Mickey Mouse or elephants in the passing clouds.

I'm charmed by my daughter's warm greetings for everyone walking past our home and the way she blurts out random information to neighbors: "My Mimi broke a bone in her foot!" I melt every time she says, “I love you, daddy,” and fear, perhaps irrationally, that these moments are numbered.

In aggregate, these little divine sparks of light and wonder make life worth living. As Isaiah alludes, God manifests in kindness and love, but also in the laughter and fullness of a family in quarantine; in the courage, stamina, and kindheartedness of healthcare professionals, grocery store employees, and other essential workers ensuring our wellbeing; in communities sending food to those in need and opening stores early for vulnerable populations to shop safely; in the volunteers participating in the first human vaccine trials; in the sacrifices of people worldwide to flatten the curve. 

As we weather this unprecedented storm in quarantine, fear and chaos seem to govern both my home and life outside of it. But at another angle, perhaps obscured, COVID-19 and cancer have provided me a new perspective during a challenging moment in my life.

In moments of uncertainty and change, we can lament our lack of control and kvetch about annoyances – I know I have. Or, we can focus our energy on loving big and spreading kindness. Few elements of life are in our control, but those are firmly in our grasp.

When I turned 30 a few months ago, I had no idea that COVID-19 and cancer would disrupt my life so violently, but I have discovered an opportunity to reorient my life toward the intangible sparks that make life worth living: love, kindness, amazement, and gratitude.

Rabbi Alex Kress is the Reform senior Jewish educator at Hillel at UCLA. He loves to explore the avant-garde of 21st-century Jewish practice and works to incorporate out-of-the-box ideas to make Judaism meaningful, relevant, and fun.


Rabbi Alex Kress
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