This essay is brought to The Layers Project Magazine in collaboration with The Eden Center, in Israel.
“As a carrier of a BRCA gene mutation, I have a significantly increased risk of ovarian cancer. Thus, even at the age of 37, my mikvah-going days are numbered. Sometime soon I will be undergoing surgical menopause to reduce my risk. One month I will go to the mikvah, and then I will stop forever. This weighs on me heavily every time I visit the mikvah. I am determined to make sure that every experience is positive, as I only have a [relatively] few visits left.”
When I wrote those words for a blog post for The Eden Center, a brilliant organization seeking to transform the mikvah experience, I had no idea how true they were. Just eight months after writing that post, still, at the age of 37, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite having had a preventative mastectomy (I now use the term risk-reducing since it didn’t prevent anything for me) at the age of 34, the beast still got me. Cancer would claim my beautiful, new, reconstructed breasts. It would pilfer my hair, my eyebrows, my eyelashes and really any hair you can imagine. Cancer would rob me of my lithe, strong body that only 3 months earlier had run the Jerusalem marathon; instead, I would be heavier than I had ever been and unable to lift a three-kilo weight. Cancer would propel me into a very sudden, very shocking menopause, thanks at first to the chemotherapy, and later as a preventative measure.
It was this body — this scarred battlefield that looked unfamiliar to me and nothing like other women’s bodies — that still had to immerse in the mikvah one or two final times. I could not bring myself to even attempt to disrobe in front of a mikvah attendant. I could hardly look at my own body. The first time I looked at my flat chest, with its jagged scar from armpit to armpit, I had a panic attack. The room spun around me and it was difficult to get air into my lungs. My breast surgeon had warned me of that. Every time I looked into the mirror at this stranger, I was left with the same thought: “How the hell did this happen? Who are you?”
I knew that anything other than complete and total acceptance of my body — a gift that, at the time, I could not give myself — would make that final mikvah experience soul-crushing.
The look I feared most from the mikvah attendant was not fear; it was pity. Her sad, downturned eyes, tilted head and heavy shoulders would remind me yet again that this body does not belong to me — should not belong to me.
I chose to use a mikvah in a nearby town that allowed women to enter without being watched. After all, I didn’t exactly have to worry about a strand of hair floating above the surface.
Over the past few years, I have had to work hard to create positive mikvah experiences. I am grateful to myself that I had the foresight to do so. I would travel a bit further or wait a bit longer to ensure I was comfortable in the mikvah environment I chose.
As many know, it is customary to treat brides and newly married women with extra kindness and extra sensitivity at the mikvah. After all, they are new to the setting. Brides often use a special preparation room, more time and sometimes can schedule an appointment before or after regular hours to ensure privacy.
My experience during my final few mikvah visits made me wonder: why can’t these same courtesies be extended to women at the end of their mikvah-going lives? What if a woman entering perimenopause was given a special room? What if someone like me, forced to face artificial menopause, was given the option of increased time and privacy as my time in this special space drew to a close? We are so careful to start a woman’s observance of Taharat Hamishpacha on the right foot; perhaps the same thought and sensitivity should surround the end of a woman’s mikvah journey.
Personally, I owe a deep debt of gratitude to organizations like The Eden Center and Sharsheret for raising awareness about the special sensitivity women with BRCA mutations and/or breast cancer may face at the mikvah.
Today, at 38-years-old, I have visited the mikvah for the last time. Though I have friends my age who are still having babies, the next time I enter a mikvah will most likely be alongside a bride — hopefully, my beautiful only daughter.
The reality for so many BRCA mutation carriers is that our private ritual practice will be affected as well. Still, though my mikvah practice met an abrupt end, I find comfort in the knowledge that many other women go through similar emotions when faced with the end of their menstrual lives. Every visit to the mikvah — whether it is your first, or your last — can serve as a powerful reminder of the passage of time and our world’s inevitable cycle. Our fragile bodies — some carrying brave scars — can only remind us that our physical selves will not last forever.