A chemotherapy siddur &mdash and other Jewish resources

What is out there in terms of Jewish sources for breast-cancer patients? Not much, Sarah Fenner found.

When the San Rafael resident — who is the wife of Rabbi Natan Fenner, who works at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center — was going through chemotherapy, she found nothing Jewish to help her with this difficult process, so she decided to make her own “Chemotherapy Siddur.”

Fenner — who was 34 at the time of her diagnosis in 2002 — put together a small photo album, with blessings from a variety of sources, as well as cards friends had sent her, and photographs that she thought would help her during treatment.

“Basically, I thought how would I transform this negative event and the whole sort of ‘fight mentality,’ which I didn’t really relate to at all, and how was I going to make that positive?” she said. “I needed to be able to frame it in a constructive way. It was horrible enough to have this going on, but I felt I had to be in a positive frame of mind to feel like my treatment would be most effective.”

Because of its uniqueness, word spread, and there was even a mention of her siddur in the New York Times. She has so far sent about 30 of them to people, requesting that they make a donation to a breast-cancer organization.

Since Fenner photocopied the blessings, she was concerned about copyright issues. Many of them were written by Berkeley-based writer Marcia Falk, who gave Fenner permission to distribute them freely specifically for cancer patients.

Fenner has a friend who was diagnosed shortly after she was, a Reconstructionist rabbi who compiled a kind of radiation siddur. They are talking about combining their efforts.

Today Fenner is cancer-free. She found out early on she was a carrier of a breast-cancer gene, and the mother of two boys elected to have both her breasts and her ovaries removed.

“I reduced my risk so much, and I plan to be around so much longer,” she said. “I’ll never know what my recurrence rate would have been, but I’ve minimized it by 97 percent.”

Fenner continues to send out copies of her “Chemotherapy Siddur.” To contact her, e-mail chemosiddur@yahoo.com.

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."