In honor of breast cancer awareness month we interviewed our friend Monica Friedman, one of the owners of KOKOA bakery, a delicious kosher bakery in Aventura FL. She is as sweet as her desserts and an inspiring strong woman who decided to fight with a positive attitude. Thanks for sharing with us your inspiring and powerful story. 

When were you diagnosed and at what age?

I was diagnosed with breast cancer on February 2012, I was 33 years old. Thank g-d by then I already had 3 children, ages 7, 5 and 2 years old. I had moved from Venezuela to Miami only 2 years before.

What cancer stage were you in when you were diagnosed?

I was diagnosed in a stage 4. The type of Cancer I had (Triple Negative) is a very aggressive type and when it hits a young person, the stage is higher.

How was the cancer initially detected?

One day I was laying down watching TV and unconsciously I checked my breast. I was not doing a self-check exam, my hand was just resting on top of my breast. At my age, I did not think something like this could happen. Honestly, you think there is an age for everything and I felt I was immune to danger. But as my hand was resting on my chest, I felt a lump that felt like a ball. I mentioned it to my husband and he said it was probably nothing! But I did not want to wait to get checked up and the next day I called for a doctor’s appointment. The doctor performed a mammogram exam, and this was the first time in my life that I had one done. The results came back negative but I insisted that there was something and I wanted to know what it was. So they performed an ultrasound and there the lump was perfectly visible. The doctor was so sweet that she did not get alarmed; she even told me she did not think it was dangerous at all. She immediately performed a biopsy and said that I would get a call the next day with the results. I waited all day for the doctor’s call and finally when I was with my kids in their after school activities the phone rang! It was a horrible feeling hearing those words. It was like everything I was hearing was in a language I could not understand, I could only understand that it was indeed cancer – and that it was a malignant type. The doctor said that it was a very aggressive cancer and that I had to act fast. She requested that I go to her office with my mom and my husband because I was probably going to be overwhelmed with information.; and indeed she was right! I cannot remember much of what was said on that meeting.

How did you feel when you first received the news? Is there a family history of breast cancer?

I felt something indescribable because you cannot even begin to believe it. You feel like your life is over and that it was changed in a matter of seconds. You start imagining your kids’ future without you in the picture. Just the word cancer crushed me so we tried not to mention the word “cancer” at home as much as possible. The doctor explained that my case had a big relationship with the fact that I was an Ashkenazi Jew. She said there was a gene that came from my Ashkenazi side of the family who survived World War II that affects breasts, the ovaries and the uterus. My family did not have any history with this type of cancer, which is why we did not think I could be positive on the BRCA exam. I had the test and my treatments and medical decisions for operations all depended on the results of the test. Even before I knew the results, I had to deal with the hardest part of all; choosing doctors. I obviously wanted the best doctor in town but I also wanted a team of people with a human touch that could understand what I was going through and could relate to the pain I was feeling. So that is exactly what I did! I believe it is very important to hear different opinions and check if they all agree on the types of suggested treatments, but then the personal part is just as important. I had an amazing team of surgeons and doctors who were there for me every time I needed them.

When I tested positive in the BRCA 2 test, it meant that even without my opinion or decision I had to have a mastectomy on both breasts. Within a month of knowing the results I was already in the operation room and by two months of being diagnosed I started treatment. 4 strong chemotherapies and 12 “not so strong”.

What or who helped you overcome it? What role did religion / Judaism play in your journey?

It is at moments like these when you realize who is by your side and you value great friendship and of course, family. They were by my side when my body could not resist any more, they lifted me up, they came with me to all my chemo sessions and even traveled from Panama and Venezuela to be with me. I was never alone, even though sometimes I felt like I needed to be alone. I understood why sometimes people walk away from help, it is normal! One needs space even though as a friend on the other side you feel the contrary, you feel that the more the merrier and the closer the better. I experienced the best gestures you could ever imagine!

One of the hardest parts of my journey was when I had to cut my hair. Your woman’s vanity is taken away from you, and it was very difficult for me. One day many of my friends showed up with their hairs cut short. The ones that could not do it, made donations to charitable organizations related to breast cancer, and some other walked in my name during many breast cancer awareness walks. People sent me stamps from rabbis(that I still carry on my wallet with me), they read Tehilim for me. I felt very honored to be part of a community where people care about you and they stop everything just to help each other. It was a beautiful feeling, and I highly appreciate it.
Was your commitment to judaism changed in any way during or after the journey?
I asked a friend to form a Kabbalah study group and we started a beautiful group that lasted almost 4 years. More than a Kabbalah class it was a group for shiurim (lessons about torah topics) about religion, about trying to explain the things we do not understand. I realized that in life everything happens for a reason and nothing is just because. The people that we have around us, our kids, parents and friends are there because they were meant to be. My diagnosis was during Purim which for me is the most beautiful jewish holiday. I adopted the holiday like mine. I decided that it belonged to me, and for the past 5 years I celebrate it in an orthodox way. I do the fast, listen to the Megillah (Book of Esther), I do Mishloach Manot (Sending of portions) etc… It is "MY holiday" and I love it. I also got a necklace from a friend from my Kabbalah group with one of the 72 names of g-d that means “healing”. It was a very special gift and I did not take it off for many years.  

What was your biggest parenting challenge during cancer treatment and into survivorship?

As a mother, it was very hard. You still have to be there for everyone and try to keep them from suffering because of the situation. I did not want my kids to be in pain or to suffer in any level. I always talked to them with the truth and never lied to them, and per the psychologist recommendation I always ended my conversations and explanations of what was happening with a positive note. I spoke in a positive and light way about my situation and I never told them how dangerous it was. I told them I had something in my body that should not have been there and it simply had to be removed and I had to take a very strong medicine. I did not make a scene or make it dramatic, I tried to always be present in everything. They obviously were affected and they were especially impacted by my hair. So, I decided that they did not have to see my hair, I would always wear a scarf around my head even when going to sleep. I preferred they did not see it so it did not leave any type of trauma on them. I do not know if that was the correct thing to do but it was what I felt was right. 

What message or advice would you like to provide women out there?

There is only one thing I ask, and not only during breast cancer awareness month but all year long. I ask women to be conscious about the disease and to be conscious about the fact that it can affect anyone. Thanks to the big marketing and buzz around breast cancer people are more aware and it is now a more curable cancer but it has to be detected on time. If you feel something strange please do not take it lightly, you have to get it checked immediately by a doctor. Being afraid about it and not getting checked because of fear is not an option. Today’s advancement in medical technology is unbelievably good and it is not a mortal cancer any more. In the month of October hospitals (at least in Miami) offer great discounts for medical exams so everyone should take advantage of them. To any woman out there fighting through breast cancer my personal advise when it comes to their kids its to talk with the truth but end the topics on a positive note. 
Today, thank G-d Monica is stable and a warrior against cancer!  
(During the month of October and November 10% of the proceeds from the sales of any of our pink and neon products will be donated to the American Cancer Society.)