The Roar Sessions: Rabbi Ilana Garber

by Rabbi Ilana C. Garber

“I don’t know what it is for sure,” the young doctor says, sheepishly. “But I’m pretty confident it’s some kind of an ‘oma.’”

I can barely breathe. Neither can he, which should give me an ounce of comfort but actually makes me even more nervous. I know this doctor, sort of. I know his wife – our youngest children are the same age so we often bump into each other at the pediatrician’s office in our small town. She and I must be about the same age too, hence the doctor’s terribly un-pokered face. He is freaking out!

And so am I: a cancer diagnosis at the age of 37 (and 50 weeks), two small children and an incredible husband at home, and a profession I love. Not to mention: I love life! I’m having too much fun! I don’t want this party to end.

I cry. We cry – my husband, mother, sisters, friends, rabbis, colleagues, college buddies I haven’t heard from in 15 years, ex-boyfriends I haven’t thought about since high school, friends of friends of friends who read about me on Facebook, or catch my blog, and just have to reach out.

We dub it “the summer of yuck.”

My mother promises this will all be over – with a positive outcome – by September.

My husband assures me he is right by my side, taking care of everything.

My sisters create a Facebook page (and a hashtag!): #GarberStrong. All-of-a-sudden there are t-shirts, tote bags, hats, a golf ball, mug, bowl, and framed needlepoint all bearing the #GarberStrong label. Friends and strangers take pictures from all over the world holding a #GarberStrong sign. A community rallies to support their rabbi in her fight against non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

I am so busy. Busy managing all of the Facebook messages and emails. Busy hiring babysitters to watch my children in this very unplanned summer. Busy at doctor appointments – blood tests, CT and Pet scans, a bone marrow biopsy, and the procedure to place the port. I have six chemo sessions – each one lasting 96 hours (yes! 96 hours!) – in the hospital and away from my children, from Monday to Friday, then home for two weeks to rest and recover, only to do it again – six times total.

I am sick, weak, and exhausted. I am so very, very scared.

*          *          *

Sometimes a roar comes from a place of deep intention. It is planned. It is calculated. It has brewed for hours or days or even years. Sometimes a roar is just an inherent part of the person – who he or she is – and up until this point, I could have easily said that was me: the “roaring” type.

This time it is different.

I don’t actually realize I am roaring until long after I’ve won the battle and the enemy has retreated. Chemo is done, the doctor has declared I’m in “complete remission,” which I prefer to call #AfterCancer because “in remission” sounds too temporary.

It’s at this point that I realize I’ve been roaring all this time; I’ve just been too busy to realize it. I was too overwhelmed to consciously shape the roar in my heart or to form it on my lips.

But I roared when I walked around the hospital floor – at least 20 laps a day – my body confined to that small space but my spirit soaring – proving to myself that I was physically fit enough to beat cancer. I roared as I worked at my job as rabbi of a large congregation throughout treatment – keeping up with emails, holding meetings on speakerphone (and, when daring to let colleagues see my pajamas, on Skype) from my hospital bed. I roared as I blogged, sharing intimate details and my personal theological struggles, giving voice to the cancer journey that has been silenced for others for decades.

I roared and I roared and I roared. Now, I’ve stopped. Now, I breathe in quiet. Now, I breathe.

My new mantra: present and peaceful, healthy and whole. Holy.


s2KY0TvR_400x400Ilana Garber is a Conservative rabbi who has served Beth El Temple in West Hartford, CT since 2005. She lives with her husband and her two young boys (one of whom has Fragile X Syndrome). A feminist, an educator, and most recently, a survivor of Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, she blogs about special needs, parenting, Judaism, and healing at


Want to read more Roar Sessions posts? You’ll find them all here.

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