Cancer and Secrets

I have cancer. It’s thyroid cancer, which has metastasized. In every bone in my body there is a tumor eating it from the inside out.

That’s why I was at the Cedars-Sinai Outpatient Cancer Center on June 25, 2003, having a bone infusion. I sat there on one of those comfortable chairs as the drug slowly slipped into my veins to make my bones stronger.

And that’s where I saw her — an old friend and a former client who emigrated from Iran. We were so happy to see one another. She was there with a friend, who was there perhaps for a reason similar to mine.

We hugged, kissed and chatted, happy to find one another. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to stay in touch. After two hours her friend was done, so she kissed me goodbye and walked away. But before I knew it she ran back to me.

"Mrs. Homa, Mrs. Homa. I didn’t see you here. I did not see you here. My lips are sealed. I will not tell anyone," she said, and kissed me again.

And I said, "No, please, do tell. That’s alright."

"No, I won’t tell anyone, I promise," she said.

Cancer is scary. It is unkind. It takes away your independence and your freedom. But cancer is a big taboo in the Jewish community, even more so in the Persian Jewish community. Having cancer is kept as a secret of great shame to those involved.

You know I have cancer. Perhaps you have cancer, or someone in your family does. Or you know someone else who has it — a neighbor, a friend. Is it our fault we have cancer? Why should we carry shame? What is there to be ashamed of?

They say that thyroid cancer is from exposure to radiation, especially during childhood. Why do we get cancer? Is it the environment? Is it our diet?

Whatever it is, it’s not our fault.

Isn’t it enough that we have to go through treatment — receive radiation, experience chemo — every day of our lives when we have cancer?

Cancer is not something to be ashamed of. Cancer is an illness, like any other illness. You can take proper measures and appropriate steps to fight it. Cancer is not always a death sentence.

The cancer is escalating in the Persian Jewish community. In every family there are one or two people with cancer. But it’s all being hush-hushed and kept secret.

My girlfriend’s sister has breast cancer. My girlfriend was crying the other day because some woman made fun of her sister wearing a wig, asking her whether she has become Orthodox.

When my girlfriend found out I had cancer, she was absolutely shocked.

"But your father-in-law is a doctor, your brother-in-law is a doctor, your cousin is a doctor. How could you have cancer?" she said.

I told her, "It’s OK. I’m prepared to fight it."

I was at a Cancer Center luncheon, and met some Persian Jews there who nodded their heads and came to me.

"Please don’t tell anyone you saw me here," they said.

Why add additional stress by hiding? Accept it, announce it, fight it and try to beat it. That’s all you have to do. Many people that went to Beverly Hills High School have come down with various forms of cancer. But not all of them are speaking to Erin Brockovich. Instead of participating in her humanitarian effort, they are keeping quiet. What a shame.

What a shame to have cancer.

These days you will see me hanging out at the Outpatient Cancer Center, receiving treatment, radiation and bone infusion. You will see me watching people, observing, asking questions, trying to do something — no matter how small — for someone that could use it. I have always believed in doing random acts of kindness. Perhaps cancer will give me another venue to reach my goal to make this a better world; to tell people it’s OK to hurt a little and do what you can to get a little better.

When my dear uncle (of blessed memory) was shot in downtown Los Angeles, we all gathered at my parents’ house. My mom had gone through severe shock; she would not hear that he had passed away. My sister-in-law pulled me to the kitchen and said, "But his son is a rabbi…. How could this happen?"

"Sometimes bad things happen to good people," I said.

This is true about cancer as well. Having cancer does not make you a bad person. You just have to remember that bad things sometimes happen to good people. Then cancer — like any other challenge in life — can be acknowledged, accepted and dealt with.

Homa Shadpour-Michaelson, a counselor with
the Refugee Resettlement Project for the Los Angeles Unified School District,
wrote this article while she was undergoing cancer treatment last year. She
passed away on Feb. 26, 2004. Her daughter, Shanee, can be reached at