After Cancer, An Unexpected Potential


J erusalem — When Esther Magara was diagnosed with cancer three years ago she felt swept away by fear and indecision.

“When the doctor told me I had cancer I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I thought I was healthy and suddenly I was sick. I spent a month in the hospital and realized my life would never be the same,” said Magara, a longtime homemaker.

While Magara, who is Orthodox, said she mourned the sense of security that comes from being healthy, she also began to wonder whether her cancer diagnosis was a message from God to change her life in positive ways.

“I know that everything comes from Hashem, and that He loves me. I believe He gave me cancer to help me figure out my life’s purpose. But I needed help discovering that purpose. Hashem sends the people you need, when you need them.”

Magara found those people at Beit Natan, a volunteer-run Jerusalem-based cancer support, advocacy and resource center. Most of its participants are women.

Staffed by psychologists and social workers, Beit Natan offers a helpline staffed by recovered cancer patients; therapeutic retreats; companions who accompany patients to treatment; in-home hospice visitation by volunteers; couples’ retreats; support to teens; as well as support groups and workshops for patients.

It was while she was attending some of these groups that Magara, who spent many years raising her children and spending time with her grandchildren, learned that Beit Natan would soon launch a Careers After Cancer workshop.

Comprised of six weekly sessions, the workshop was led by a social worker who also referred the participants to business advisers at Temech, a career counseling center for religious women with an emphasis on launching a business.

Esther Zemel, who coordinates Beit Natan’s hotline and support groups, said the workshop, the only one of its kind in Israel, filled a void.

“Beit Natan was established 20 years ago,” Zemel said, “and through our interactions with the women who come to us we’ve seen how long it can take for them to get back to themselves. Everyone expects them to return to their routine, but they’re exhausted or experiencing some of the other physical repercussions of their illness and their treatments.”

Some employers are eager to accommodate the “new normal” of a person with cancer, but many others aren’t, Zemel said.

Difficult as it is to be forced to change gears, a cancer diagnosis can be a “catalyst for growth” toward a new career or fulfilling a lifelong dream, Zemel said.

During the first workshop (a second will open next month), the nine participants, most of them Orthodox women, reflected on their current circumstances — physically, emotionally, financially — and how they saw themselves prior to their cancer diagnosis.

“They asked themselves, ‘Has something changed and if so, what?’ ‘What are my strengths?’ ‘What do I want to do differently with relation to my work or my family?’ ‘What are the implications of such a change?’ ‘What are the challenges?’” Zemel said. “Will these challenges prevent her from making this change?”

One of the participants wanted to publish a children’s book, and she received guidance from Beit Natan and Temech.

Leah, who experienced a recurrence of her cancer and is currently on sick leave from her community-oriented job, chartered a new course in last year’s workshop.

“These were women in my situation, who wanted to work or be active in other ways, but who had to decide on whether or not to make a career change,” Leah said. “It was a support group that encouraged us to move toward the future. We had a lot of things in common and learned from one another’s strengths. It was exactly what I needed.”

Leah, who asked that her last name not be published, had to take more than a year off from work due to her treatments.

“I began to recalibrate my path, as if I were WAZE,” she said, referring to the popular Israeli street navigation application. “The meetings allowed me to share my experiences. I spoke the same language as the other women. If someone said she tires much more quickly now, all of us could relate. Some of the effects of our treatment will stay with us forever.”

Rather than go back to her old job, Leah decided to finish the bachelor’s degree she never completed.

“I feel I need to prove to myself that I can do it. I need to learn to love myself with all the changes I’ve experienced. God willing, I’ll be able to return to work one day and be healthy,” she said.

Temech’s career counselors gave Leah some homework. They asked her to find eight places where she could study and to consider the logistics related to attending college: How much would it cost and how long would it take to earn her degree?

During her course at Beit Natan, Magara, who spent years at home raising her children and caring for her grandchildren, decided to open a restaurant in the center of Jerusalem where she, her husband and two grown sons now work.

Standing behind the counter of Dave’s Bagels as she prepared a toasted bagel filled with American-style roast beef, Magara said the work she did with Careers After Cancer taught her how to come up with a budget and gave her the confidence to fulfill a dream.

“Were it not for Beit Natan, I don’t know where I’d be today. They gave me a home. When I need to speak there is always someone to listen.”

As for her cancer she said, “I see it as a gift. It has helped me realize my potential.”