Family & Education

A year of overwhelming love

'As spring turned to summer, we were knocked off our smug perch by the grotesque prospect of battling cancer during a global pandemic.'


2020 has been, to borrow Dickens’ well-worn line, the best of times and the worst of times.

When the first lockdown began, all those months ago, I immediately recognised that my family were better placed than many to get through it unscathed. We have the benefit of a garden, so my nine- year-old twin daughters had outdoor space to play. My son, a movement worker for Noam, could easily work from home and even my husband, a criminal defence lawyer, was able to attend police stations, prisons and courts remotely.

For me, I jumped at the chance to scratch a homeschooling itch I’d had since my children were toddlers, and eagerly invested in white boards and flip charts and all manner of maths gadgetry. We ate meals together as a family, something the usually frenetic pace of life never allowed. And we even had time for some silliness. It began with my daughters recreating art masterpieces using bric a brac from around the house, and culminated in a rather embarrassing family recreation of 80s pop videos that now languishes somewhere on YouTube. In short, although we knew that others were suffering, lockdown didn’t feel all that bad for us. We were trapped at home with people we love and we were smugly determined to make the most of it.

In fact, the only real downside back then was finding somewhere for everyone to work. Space at home was limited. So kitchen tables, bedroom dressers, arms of sofas, anything vaguely flat became an ad-hoc work surface. And as we each settled into our respective corners of the house I found myself most days sitting crossed-legged on the bed, hunched over my laptop.

It’s possible that I was too quick to blame this hunched over posture for the dull pain that niggled my back. Once it morphed into a persistent ache I blamed fatigue, as I juggled work, homeschooling and running the house. But after a while it was clear that something was off. My body just didn’t feel right. I tried to put those feelings aside, assuming I was one of many who was second guessing vague symptoms and wondering whether perhaps I’d had a mild version of the virus. But as lockdown progressed, and the sourdough baking and homeschooling became the norm, those aches and pains persisted, and worsened. Eventually, they couldn’t be ignored. And so, despite the pandemic, I was scanned, tested and examined. And diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer.

In more normal times, the oncologist would have delivered the news face to face. But as every political commentator keeps reminding us, these are not normal times. As it was, we took the call in the garden, while the girls were in a zoom Ivrit lesson. Covid-19 has created many unexpected, and unsettling, situations. But I’d hazard a guess that receiving the news of a cancer diagnosis, in the garden, straining to hear the oncologist’s voice over the noise of a Joe Wicks PE lesson blaring out from the neighbour’s patio, is fairly high on the list.

And so, as spring turned to summer, we were knocked off our smug perch by the grotesque prospect of battling cancer during a global pandemic.

The first few weeks post-diagnosis are something of a blur. All I can be sure of is that within days of the diagnosis being confirmed I embarked on a course of chemotherapy that I’ve still not finished. Due to Covid, I have to attend all appointments, scans and procedures on my own. There are no visitors on the wards. If ever I needed to be reminded that, however much we are loved, we’re all of us ultimately alone, this experience has proved it.

Most painfully of all, we have had to have unbearably difficult conversations with our confused, anxious and bewildered children. We have been thrown into a world that is, at times, incredibly bleak. We simply never imagined that I’d be navigating this path at the age of 47. There have been many tears and many sleepless nights.

And yet. As Dickens claimed, with the worst of times come the best of times.

In spite of the pain and the worry, this past year has also been nothing short of extraordinary. We have been overwhelmed with love and support from so many, family and friends of course, but also many members of our own New North London Synagogue community. I even have the possibly unparalleled blessing of being on the list of weekly Get Well messages at both Finchley Reform Synagogue and North Hendon Adass.

Friends immediately set up a food rota so that we had a hot meal delivered everyday, for the best part of six months. (At one point, in the peak of Lockdown 1.0, competition for a space on our meals rota was so intense it was easier to get a same-day Ocado delivery slot.) The parents in my daughters’ school, Alma Primary, set up a WhatsApp group to coordinate play dates for them, so they too felt loved and supported. The residents on our street hosted a MacMillan Coffee Morning; 12 households were involved and raised over £5000. Our rabbi visited every Friday with a home baked gift. A psalm reading circle was set up in my name, and is now in its 44th cycle. And we were inundated with cards and messages of love.

As we all hunker down and brace ourselves for a chilly winter it’s easy to forget that during that first lockdown we enjoyed unseasonably hot weather. I was eager to see people, and friends and family were eager to see me. But the lockdown rules meant no home visits. No matter. One afternoon, my husband’s friends arrived to put up a gazebo, perfect for socially distant visits, and suitable for all weathers. When the weather turned and grew colder, they came back to help us set up a garden heater.

Six months on from diagnosis, (and I know I am lucky to even write those words!) life has settled into an unexpected but nonetheless manageable routine. I have chemotherapy roughly once a fortnight. My children have weekly counselling sessions with Chai, a charity that I cannot begin to praise adequately. And, as a family, we are surrounded with love.

I have faced the cancer challenge by channelling my energies into writing. Alongside personal letters and memories that I’m recording for my children, I’m also writing a blog on Facebook (Nobody Needs Another Cancer Diary) and posting photos of, among other things, my novelty chemo socks, that seem to have taken on a life of their own.

Of course, I wouldn’t have chosen this bombshell. But it has opened my eyes to how wonderful and truly extraordinary our community is. Living in a tight-knit Jewish community can be exasperating at times. There is often little scope for privacy. But when you find yourself battling a particularly cruel cancer diagnosis, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

In the truly worst of times, we have experienced community at its very best.


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