How We Can Transform Ourselves: My Journey From Breast Cancer to Lobbyist for Women’s Health – By Ruth Ebenstein
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How We Can Transform Ourselves: My Journey From Breast Cancer to Lobbyist for Women’s Health – By Ruth Ebenstein

How We Can Transform Ourselves: My Journey From Breast Cancer to Lobbyist for Women’s Health – By Ruth Ebenstein

What do you do when cancer crashes down on your life plans?

Cry. Thrash. Wallow in despair. Then pick yourself up, shake off the gloom, and embrace the glory of being alive with a mission to serve—and thrive.

At 42, I was diagnosed with breast cancer while nursing my baby; I had two other little boys under five at home. Before cancer, my life’s goal was to persuade my husband to have another baby. My wish fused the personal and the ideological, as I sought to grow our family and continue my mother’s lineage after so many members were lost in the Holocaust. After cancer, my dream was dead. So was my certitude that longevity was my birthright.

When I was done with my treatment, I felt lost, unmoored. Nobody had warned me that it would be so difficult to survive… surviving! Or that the body heals infinitely faster than the psyche.

What was my calling now? What was God’s plan for me? Researching and writing a dissertation in Holocaust history lost its allure. I had saved my life! Now I felt impelled to help save others. But how? I was neither doctor nor nurse. I knew nothing about engineering, science or pharmacology. How could I make a difference?

A chance conversation at a Sabbath dinner provided a path. Over sweet potato soup, a friend told me that cardiovascular disease kills more women in Israel than all of the cancers combined. But women don’t even know it, she lamented. Israel had no Go Red Campaign. If women knew the causes and signs of heart disease, they could save their lives.

Therein I found my calling. I could be that person who could disseminate to women, health care professionals of all kinds, politicians and the general population critical information about women’s cardiovascular wellness. I could help women protect their hearts.

I zeroed in on raising awareness about heart disease amongst those whose health risk was the most severe: Palestinian and Arab Israeli women, ultra-Orthodox women, women from low-income families, and women with disabilities. Channeling my understanding of politics and journalism, I lobbied in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) to put this topic on the national agenda. I also joined a team from Hadassah Medical Center’s Linda Joy Pollin Cardiovascular Wellness Center for Women to work on the ground to change habits via community intervention—one girl, one young woman, one adult at a time. Great was the satisfaction when the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women convened on the morning of March 10, 2014, to discuss women’s heart health in the presence of Yael German, Israel’s Minister of Health—and a woman! Sitting on black upholstered chairs around the long wood oval table were representatives of the aforementioned high-risk groups, women who generally felt disenfranchised from the centers of power. Disabled women propped up proudly on their wheelchairs, taking their place at the table.

Before cancer, I dreamed a dream for me. After cancer, I was called upon to help preserve the hearts, and thus, the lives of many. I learned to find the divine in not just creating life, but also in fostering it. Trauma can change you for the better. All you need to do is take a few empowered steps forward, and with a little luck, the transformation will come.

Ruth doing heart health activism in an elementary school


Ruth Ebenstein, American-Israeli writer/activist

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