When her big sister Chagit, now 19, was diagnosed with cancer nearly three years ago, Hila Wajsberg, who was then 11 years old, experienced a range of emotions.
“I saw that Chagit was suffering and it tore me apart, but – and I hate to admit it – I was jealous of the time and attention and gifts everyone was giving her,” said Hila, seated around her family’s large dining room table.
Hila said Chagit’s friends from school wanted to be helpful, “so they often stayed with us to help out and keep Chagit company. But I shared a room with Chagit, and that meant there were girls in my room all the time and I didn’t have any privacy.”
That wasn’t all.
Chagit’s illness meant that their mother, Rachel, who is a teacher, was too busy taking care of Chagit to help Hila and her siblings – there are 12 in total, most of them still living at home – study for exams.
“I had a big exam coming up but my mum couldn’t prep me,” Hila said. “I understood why, but it was still painful. In the end my big sisters mostly took care of us but Chagit, who has always helped us so much, wasn’t able to,” she said, her eyes filling with tears at the memory.
Yael, now 15, called Chagit’s diagnosis with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a blood cancer that originates in the lymphatic system, “traumatic for the entire family.”
“Chagit had to go to the hospital every other week, and she couldn’t be left alone, of course, so our mum was essentially living with her there. It was all so sudden.”
Yael said that when she called her parents on the telephone, “I got the impression that they had time and energy only for Chagit and not so much for me. My brain understood why, but the rest of me, not so much.”
Noa, who was just 9 when Chagit became ill, remembers feeling confused when her beloved big sister and their parents were suddenly out of the house. Hagit was going to doctors’ appointments and doing medical tests but Noa didn’t realise the seriousness of the situation.
“My parents wanted to spare me anxiety so they didn’t tell me that Chagit was very ill,” Noa said. “Eventually I asked one of my sisters, who told me the truth. I was afraid for Chagit but when I spoke with my father he told she was receiving the best possible treatment and that the doctors thought she would recover.”
During the most difficult days of Chagit’s treatment, Noa and four of her sisters spent time at Zichron Menachem’s day centre in Jerusalem, where they participated in fun and educational activities, went on day trips and received emotional support as the siblings of a child with cancer.
“At first I took a music class where I learned how to play on the keyboard,” Noa said. “Then I took voice lessons and spent time with the parrots,” she said, referring to Zichron Menachem’s animal therapy sessions. I also spent a lot of time in the library because I like to read.”
“We also went on jeep trips and on day trips to Superland and Kefzuba,” Noa said enthusiastically, referring to two of Israel’s most popular amusement parks.
Yael said she benefitted from attending a Zichron Menachem supportive workshop created especially for ultra-Orthodox girls.
“I felt comfortable in the group because the other girls are also haredi,” or ultra-Orthodox. “They could relate when I said how difficult it was to have my parents out of the house so often” even during some Sabbath days and Jewish holidays, when
Yael said that prior to Chagit’s illness her father, a full-time Torah scholar, had flexible hours and her mother was home during school holidays.
“Everything changed when Chagit got cancer,” Yael said. Now that Chagit is in remission “our family is together again.”