Memo from a survivor of esophageal cancer

The call came in the morning three years ago. I had had a colonoscopy and because I had developed a difficultly in swallowing in the previous months the doctor ordered an endoscopy.

When a doctor calls first thing in the morning after a test it is usually not a good sign and my heart sank. I was sure I had colon cancer. With tears streaming down my face I was given a second death sentence (the first was my stroke ten years ago). The words you have stage three esophageal cancer still echo in my mind to this day.

Three years later I am alive, living life to its fullest, an esophageal cancer prevention advocate and Esophageal Cancer Action Network Board member.

Michele Rifkin

The journey from the news was filled with despair, hope, courage and tears of sadness alternated with tears of joy. My body was subject to intense radiation that made it impossible to eat, a poison cocktail of chemotherapy drugs that made me sick and bald and an 8-hour surgery to remove my cancerous esophagus and upper third of my stomach and then build a new esophagus out of the two-thirds of my stomach that was left.

But I had 2 parts of me that were still 100 percent intact – my soul and a little spark of hope almost extinguished by the darkness of my diagnosis. I needed a plan if that ember of hope, the willingness to live, survive and prosper against the odds was to prevail.

Any major illness requires three levels of attack.

  • Medical
  • Circle of support
  • Spiritual

Our society normally puts them in the order listed above.

During my darkest moments when all I asked God to do was just end my life, I would often find my husband alone in a dark room with a candle burning.  He had been given 2 books by a close friend:

  • This is for Everyone: Universal Principles of Healing Prayer and the Jewish Mystics and
  • Healing with God’s Love: Kabbalah’s Hidden Secrets

Both were by Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer from Congregation Bene Shalom in Chicago. He specializes in teaching people God’s sacred Jewish healing prayers.

Not being very religious Jews, we really did not know how to pray for the miracle I needed to live. What we learned from Rabbi Schmotkin from our synagogue is that the Jewish people have very long and specific series of healing prayers and rituals reinforced Rabbi Goldhamer’s teachings.

As a result we reversed the order of attack.

Spiritual – Use the power of God’s light to seek and destroy all cancer cells in my body and the power of not asking God for a miracle but instead thanking God for already performing a miracle just like at Hanukah.

Circle of support – Life is a network of interconnected friends and family. You will need them to get to appointments, hold your hand, wipe your tears, and support you through the rough patches of recovery because you will have them.

Medical – It’s not the chemo or radiation that saved me it was the answered prayer to find the best doctor medically and spiritually. Through random events only controllable by the hand of God, we found Dr. Ken Meredith in Madison. He told me I would be all right and he meant what he said from my first consultation before my surgery to months afterward when I got addicted to pain killers during my recovery and he helped mentally heal me beyond my physical healing, because his compassion lead me to the right path of recovery.

Since then I have learned esophageal cancer has a high correlation to chronic heartburn and gastroesophageal reflux disease. Yet the medical community has not kept up with our poor diets, instead opting to hand out Prevacid and Nexium like candy for years without ever checking if the esophagus has developed Barrett’s disease or cancer.

Than is why I work with ECAN (ecan.org) now and I am a current board member to educate those with heartburn. I also learned something that often makes me cry.

Unlike other cancers that have so many supporters and raise hundred of million of dollars driven by the action of survivors to champion their cause, esophageal cancer raises almost nothing!

That’s not why I cry.  It is the frustration of wanting to scream from mountaintops, this can happen to anyone. Cancer has no rules or religion.

I am so blessed to be that rare survivor. If you are ever looking for a charity to make a donation to where it can have a major impact educating other potential patients and doctors, please consider ECAN. If you ever hear of somebody with esophageal cancer please have them contact me. I am alive because God wants me to give back.

As my father-in-law always reminds me in capital letters on Facebook comments on my cancer free anniversaries, “THERE IS A GOD MICHELE.”

So never give up hope and never stop praying and never stop believing in the power of GOD’s miracles.

Michele Rifkin of Fox Point is an esophageal cancer survivor who champions those in need. No matter what your cancer is, if you need a shoulder to vent on contact her at Bigshotrifkin@gmail.com.