TORONTO — Ten years ago, Melissa Lieberman and her husband were about to buy a double stroller for their twins, who were due in a month. And then she felt a lump in her breast.
“It was right during the Christmas holidays,” said Cantor Eric Moses, Lieberman’s husband. “[The twins] were due to be born somewhere toward the end of January. People are sensitive to their body more when pregnant. She felt something that didn’t feel quite right.”
Although Lieberman’s doctor decided to do a biopsy, the couple didn’t think much of it until they came in for a routine appointment.
“[The doctor] calls us in. He shut down the office and told us the news,” she said. This is when Lieberman, already the mother of an 18-month-old boy, learned she had breast cancer.
“We were shocked and overwhelmed. It’s hard to explain the reaction. When you’re pregnant and expecting twins, that’s the last thing on your mind. From that moment on, we were just go, go, go. We had to do as much research as we could, get as many doctors involved.”
Before Lieberman’s treatment could begin, doctors had to induce labour. She then underwent a double mastectomy, aggressive chemotherapy and several other surgeries.
Soon after her diagnosis became known, the community support began. Friends, doctors, members of the family’s synagogue and complete strangers reached out to help.
“The support from the community was incredible,” Moses said. “Challah would show up every Friday, and I still don’t know who to thank.
“When you know people care about you, worry about you, are praying for you… you’re just overwhelmed by incredible acts of kindness. It gives you strength and hope to keep going.”
Now, Lieberman is ready to celebrate a huge milestone. The mother of three has been cancer-free for 10 years.
“Typically, after people have been cancer-free for 10 years, their chances of recurrence lessens,” Moses said.
As a way to celebrate and give back to the community, the couple organized Kol Isha: The Female Voice, a concert to raise money and awareness for cancer research and the BRCA gene mutation, which is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. BRCA-1 and 2 are more common in Ashkenazi Jews than in other groups. Though she wasn’t aware of it before her diagnosis, Lieberman had the BRCA-1 gene.
At the concert, guests were given free genetic testing kits for the gene. Money raised went to the Women’s College Research Institute, directed by Dr. Steven Narod. The event, which took place at Beth Sholom Synagogue on March 27, was hosted by Dr. Marla Shapiro, of Dr. Marla and Friends, and included performers Amy Sky, Neshama Carlebach and Magda Fishman.
Moses hopes the event leads to a push for women to get genetic testing for the BRCA gene.
“The good thing about testing now, if you have information in advance, you can truly save your life. You can stop yourself from getting cancer,” he said.
He also hopes it gives others battling cancer hope.
“Not everybody has the same outcome we do, and we recognize that. Having said that, there are many that do come out to a positive end and we have to celebrate every moment we have,” he said. “It certainly gives you a new perspective on life when you get challenged like this. You learn to really live every day as if it’s your last.”