Rivka Matitya: Coffee and chemo

Once treatments became frequent and everyone wanted to know how she was doing, a blog became the most practical thing to do.

There's laundry in the living room, a shopping list is being finalized, someone's calling to see if her daughter can baby-sit tonight and she's got to make sure her husband has his keys. Everything seems normal at Rivka Matitya's home in Jerusalem's Har Homa neighborhood as the tumult of family life goes on around her. And that's just the way she likes it, thank you, as expressed in her moving blog Coffeeandchemo.com. Despite having stage four metastic breast cancer, with cancer also in her bones, liver and lungs, The 42-year-old is determined to not let her illness become the center of her life, and her hugely entertaining and moving blog reflects that approach. Even its name reflects the sense of humor with which she approaches the challenge of her illness and her determination to keep it just another part of her daily routine. "I don't have much time to hang out with friends cuz I'm a mom and I'm working, so I'd make coffee and chemo dates" with friends. One of them insisted that should be the name of the blog. While she'd considered starting a blog for a couple of years after first being diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2005, "I didn't feel like I was someone who was sick," she explains. A routine checkup in 2007 revealed the cancer had spread, but even though "I had discovered I had this thing growing inside me, I felt okay. I didn't want to be in the sick world, I guess." Still, once treatments became frequent and everyone wanted to know how she was doing, a blog became the most practical thing to do. At first it was centered mostly around medical updates and her illness, but then "my husband said to me: 'I thought you wanted to write about other things beside your illness.' So I started to expand it a little more." That meant posts about "the perfect Risk game," she played with her friends once; the surprise birthday gift she received from her husband; her children's debates about watching Star Trek, and political entries reflecting the maelstrom of living in Israel, including her child's praying for the victims of the recent Mercaz Harav Yeshiva attack. Yes, as she says, "the cancer is always there," but in short, simple, delicate entries - all signed "With love and optimism" and asking readers to pray for her or "send happy, healing thoughts" - she reflects her unique personality and struggle to cope. In a post from March 10 entitled "In for Life," she shared a talk with her oncologist about her mood, concluding by writing: "I know that my situation is good. I know that it could be a lot worse. I know that there are other people living with lifelong invisible illnesses. It doesn't help. I hate having cancer. I wish it would just go away!" But a day's post could just as easily about the snow in Jerusalem and the troubles of picking up kids who went without knowing school was canceled, or her own prayers the day before that the snow would let her skip chemo. "I post a lot about what's going on with me; sometimes it's what's going on in my head, sometimes it's what's going on in my family," says Matitya as she looks at her laptop, which has a prized position on her kitchen table, but which makes regular trips to her bed when her illness makes her too tired. With a family, a job teaching swimming and a firm interest in what's happening to Israel politically, her chemo treatments have to be fitted in between her busy schedule or vice versa, and that very balancing act is what makes the blog so fascinating. "I'm trying to find the balance between how much cancer is defining my life and how much cancer is in the background of my life, and part of that process I work out through the blog," she says. Sometimes that's at 1 in the morning, when the effects of "chemo brain" have worn off. Lying in bed working on the computer also makes her feel "less isolated and less sorry for myself." Writing the blog also helps her "put certain ideas out there" that are easier written down than shared in conversation. One involved a visit to a weekend retreat, where guided imagery "touched a nerve I didn't even know existed, and I couldn't even articulate the fears without bursting into tears... by being able to write about it and put it out there, that was the first step toward articulating those fears about breaking down, and that was very important - I can discuss it now, talk to somebody about it without sobbing." With so many deeply emotional issues she's facing, the blog "allows you to take the time to express it in a way that works for you, without worrying about someone else's reaction... The thoughts, the feelings, the issues that I'm grappling with - many of them aren't going to go away for a very long time. So part of what I am searching for is how do I frame that within my life. What the blog does is it allows me to find the words, the context... it forces me to want to say it right, to really identify what it is I'm feeling..." Her family figures largely in the blog, from little arguments, special family moments or taking them along to a chemo session. She does not use her children's names, but does share their feelings and comments about her illness or other themes. "The question of family and the way family deals with this, I think, is a very important element of cancer. When you're going through an illness, you have family, you're not going through it by yourself…" In a moving post about her husband, Moshe, entitled "We Have Cancer," she wrote: "He never asks for thanks. He never expects anything in return. He is quiet, generous and giving. He is my partner. He listens. He is there, 'We' have cancer. I am not alone." At first she'd thought about writing a "closed" blog to protect the family's privacy. "Then it occurred to me that in the big picture, I would be writing about things that might talk to other people, that would maybe help other people, so I decided to make the blog open to anyone who wants to read." Ultimately, that decision has increasingly empowered her both in her battle against cancer and in her determination to keep her highly praised, widely read blog going. A former colleague of her husband whose daughter has cancer wrote to thank her, "and that was particularly moving to me, because this is someone dealing with a child with cancer, which seems to me the hardest thing in the world to deal with, who is getting emotional support from what I'm writing, which to me is tremendous... It means that I'm not just informing, I'm doing something which is helping other people as well, and that's a big deal for me." Similar reactions have come from as far away as Canada, Japan and the Philippines, including one from a woman who goes by La Senora who wrote: "Thank you for writing, thank you for sharing, thank you for helping place things in perspective. I think God led me to your blog because it's what I needed to see. Thank you." "If you're living with an illness, you're living with someone that limits your life, what you're able to do for yourself and your family, for others," says Matitya. "By having this venue, where I'm actually within my illness, or because of my illness, able to help others, that's a very strengthening factor... it just makes me feel like I'm not in my own world, that I'm able to help people and support people, and that's huge." The phone rings - a shopping-list question has come up. Matitya clears it up, then it's back to the blog, whose right margin features a list that captures the essence of both Rivka and her writing: "I am a Red-Head (to know one is to love one); Zionist (last of a dying breed); Idealist (can't help it, I still want to change the world), Enthusiastic People Person (love to meet you!), Mom (my kids are EVERYTHING to me), Wife (married to my best friend), and Cancer Survivor (read on!)." www.coffeeandchemo.blogspot.com