Ruth Ebenstein

I never imagined something wonderful could come out of something bad.

“That lump is cancer. If the pathology report comes back negative, I’m going to think it’s a mistake.”

When Dr. Fisher dropped that bomb on me while I was nursing my baby (on the cancerous side!), I thought, I'm going to die. I had lost two friends to the disease. Both were around my age. Was there any other trajectory?

The pathology report on the lymph nodes scooped out of my left armpit confirmed that the cancer had NOT spread. Though blessed, I lumbered around my apartment in Jerusalem, despairing. I had two other sons under five in addition to my baby. Would I get to see them grow up? Gone was my dream of another child. My doctorate in Holocaust history had lost its allure. While my lumpectomy scars were still healing, I gritted my teeth and walked my fingers up the wall, stretching the scar tissue under my armpit.

I was a changed person. But who was this new me?

Then, on a rainy Wednesday in January five years ago, I took a break from my exercises to check my email. There, I found a query that glittered with some promise.

"Do you want to join an Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group?"

I had attended Israeli-Palestinian dialogue groups before and met Palestinian men. But the friendships I sought with women were hard to attain. A shared history of illness could provide a real connection. Could something good come out of cancer?

Walking into the first meeting, I found more than good. I found incredible! I met Ibtisam Erekat, a bold, captivating Muslim Palestinian woman from Abu Dis. And I discovered that we had very similar life narratives, despite the fact that I was an American-Israeli Orthodox Jew. We were both religiously observant and we had both married in our thirties, late in our respective traditional communities. Each of our husbands was a divorcé who was several years our senior and had brought children into the marriage. We both had birthed three children in three years. And we were both diagnosed with breast cancer while nursing our babies, which was rather uncommon.  I had never met anyone who shared so many critical elements of my life story. "Same here," said Ibtisam at our first meeting, in impressive English she had gleaned off the television. I soon discovered that we were both fearless, outgoing, daring. The conversation flowed and we cracked each other up.

In 2012, we traveled together to Bosnia as part of an Israeli-Palestinian delegation of breast cancer survivors, sponsored by Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, and hosted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The mission: to meet and learn from other breast cancer