Chagit Wajsberg was 17 years old when she noticed her neck was swollen. Her doctor thought it was nothing to worry about. It was probably just an infection.
But Chagit had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a blood cancer that starts in the lymphatic system.
“At first I was in denial,” Chagit, a vivacious 19-year-old, said, recalling the day she received the news. “I didn’t allow myself to think about the bad things that could happen.”
Soon afterward, though, Chagit decided to learn as much as she could about her illness and prognosis.
“I asked my doctor about my chances of dying and he said most people my age recover. So that’s what I decided to do,” she said with an impish smile.
Chagit underwent surgery and then had to endure months of intensive chemotherapy that left her ill and weak.
“My doctors were surprised by how ill the treatment left me,” she recalled.
Zichron Menachem’s volunteers were at Chagit’s side every step of the way.
“When I arrived at the hospital and saw all the children who were ill, I knew I’d be like them soon,” she said. “I met Eden, a Bat Sherut” – one of Zichron Menachem’s National Service volunteers – “and we hit it off right away. I felt comfortable talking to her about serious things, the heavy things I felt I couldn’t discuss with my friends. Eden gave me her mobile phone number so I could call whenever I felt the need to talk.”
When Chagit, who is ultra-Orthodox, was invited to Zichron Menachem’s camp in the spring she asked whether an ultra-Orthodox volunteer could accompany her.
“Our lifestyle is different from other lifestyles,” Chagit, one of 12 children, explained. “Everyone at Zichron Menachem wanted me to feel comfortable, and I’m so grateful.”
During the spring camp Chagit didn’t feel well “but even so, I did all the activities. I even went on a zip-line,” she said proudly.
Zichron Menachem’s summer holiday in London “was like a breath of fresh air,” she said. “It was fun being with other kids who understood what it’s like to have a serious illness. Plus, the volunteers were so special. I don’t know where they get their patience.”
As much as Chagit enjoyed touring London, she said the most meaningful part of the holiday was the realisation that she no longer wanted to hide her chemo-induced baldness – the most visible sign of her struggle with cancer – from her family.
Being with other kids with cancer “gave me confidence to express my feelings about who I am. They helped me to not be ashamed. When I got home I told my family that I no longer wanted to wear a hat in the house.”
Zichron Menachem also helped Chagit transition back to school, once she was well enough to attend classes.
“When I returned to school I found that I had trouble concentrating and that I’d missed a lot of schoolwork. I felt like I had to act like a regular girl even though I had changed so much. During my illness I opened up, I met new people and tried new things.”
Uncertain of how to cope with school Chagit, by then in remission, sought advice from a volunteer at Zichron Menachem, which arranged for her to take voice lessons at the organisation’s day center in Jerusalem, where she lives.
“It was a great feeling to be back with the people who knew me best during my treatments.
Several of Chagit’s younger sisters (she is one of nine girls) attended Zichron Menachem’s after-school programme for siblings of children with cancer. They took part in activities and received a hot meal and transportation.
“It was very difficult for my siblings when I became ill,” Chagit said. “Suddenly my parents were spending more time with me than with them. I think they were also resentful that I was getting so much attention, from my parents and my friends.
“Knowing they had a warm, nurturing place to go relieved my parents’ anxiety and helped me to focus on getting well. Zichron Menachem played a big role in my healing process,” Chagit said.