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By CH (LTC) Yoni Zagdanski, USAR

In loving memory of Peretz Yisroel Belitz zt”l

Last week, I lost my brother-in-law Peretz, but it felt very much like losing my own brother. Peretz was originally diagnosed with esophageal cancer nearly six years ago. He was declared cancer free two years later, but had a recurrence about a year and half ago. Throughout his long battle with cancer, Paul never lost his passion for life, which gave me – and gives me – new meaning and perspective about what is really important in life.

I think that human nature is such that we constantly desire things that we don’t have and that we wished we had – whether it is a car, a house, or even a different spouse. This is true until something tragic happens to us or to someone close to us. Now with the passing of Peretz, I realize that health and close family relationships are the most important gifts one can have. And, if all you have is those two things, believe me, you are doing great!

Before Rosh Hashana, Peretz’ doctors presented him with two options: 1. Undergo a long and risky surgery that had a small chance of eradicating the cancer once and for all, but with the certain loss of his voice box. 2. Avoid surgery and living another two or three years in relative comfort with his family. Peretz chose the first option. The surgery was successful, but Peretz suffered multiple devastating complications afterwards and eventually slipped in a coma. Two months after the surgery, Peretz passed away, leaving a widow and three orphans, including a ten-year old son – Eytan.

Peretz loved life, people, learning, and the Land of Israel. We will greatly miss him. He wrote a letter to his family and friends prior to the surgery and his wife agreed to let me share his letter with you. I hope you will all find inspiration in Peretz’ last letter. I hope to read this letter every Rosh Hashana, with G-d’s help.

* * *

“On September 23, I will be undergoing major cancer surgery. It entails removing my stomach, esophagus, and voice box while repositioning my windpipe out the front of my neck through a hole called a stoma. The technical names of the procedures are total laryngectomy in addition to a repeat esophagectomy via colonic interposition. There will be 5 allstar surgical disciplines participating in the 12-14 hour surgery to eradicate this cancer from my body once and for all, please G-d.

Life is about decisions. Thankfully, most decisions are mundane. However, once in a while, people are forced to make grueling decisions which have severe ramifications. Friends and family, believe me when I tell you that the decision to go ahead with this life-altering surgery was not difficult for me to make even though my quality of life will be diminished. Eating will be different. Breathing will no longer be through my mouth, but through a stoma (hole) in the neck. Communication will be difficult without a voice. The alternative option (ie no surgery) would have entailed a decent quality of life for part of the next 2-3 years as I live out my final days with loved ones.

Honestly, this was never a decision I had to contemplate. It was actually the easiest decision I have ever made. Looking back 5 1/2 years ago as I was on the heels of commencing this cancer journey, I made a promise to myself. I would do anything to live. I didn’t care about pain, disfigurement, weakness, disability, etc. I owe it to my family and to myself. My little guy, with G-d’s help, will have a Bar Mitzvah in 2.5 years. My older kids will graduate college. I dream everyday of walking them down the wedding aisle. I want to see grandchildren. There are many milestones which I want to participate in. My father passed away when I was 11. I feel that void of not having my father on a daily basis. Heaven forbid, my family should know what that feels like. I am doing this surgery also for myself. As I have posted previously, I am addicted to life. I love life!! Simple as that. I love what life has to offer. It’s a beautiful world.

My goal is not to give you a false impression. This surgery will be devastating. My colon will be fashioned into a new esophagus and stomach. I will have to learn how to swallow again. I will breathe only through a hole in my neck. I assume my big nose will be for decoration only. Most devastating will be the loss of my voice. It’s hard to fathom being unable to talk with my natural voice .. unable to express myself to others. This is something which we take for granted, but it will no longer be part of my life. I had my first speech therapy session the other day. We went over the artificial means of communication postoperatively. It all feels so surreal.

Every cancer patient experiences challenge upon challenge. It’s the nature of the beast. I always compare it to getting into a boxing ring with Mike Tyson. He is always going to knock me down. However, I will always find a way to get up. Most of the time I don’t know how I will rise up. But I will figure it out. It is what I coin REINVENTing oneself. Throughout these past 5.5 years, I have been knocked down by cancer multiple times while enduring 31 rounds of chemo, 56 radiations, and over 50 surgeries/procedures. It’s felt like cancer has come out swinging. I’ve absorbed a lot of knockdowns. Life took many twists and turns. Yet I’ve managed to evolve and grow from each knockdown. For example, I had to close my podiatry practice yet I found new talents which G-d blesses me with. I started to counsel cancer patients at Montefiore Hospital. I found enjoyment in lecturing for staff at Sloan Kettering and Montefiore on the emotional aspects of cancer. I made a difference in people’s lives. I reinvented myself.

After this surgery, my voice will not be silenced. On the contrary, I will have a greater voice in this world. My goal is to continue to help others reinvent themselves like I have done after all my knockdowns. As Rosh Hashanah approaches, let us all try to reinvest ourselves. Let’s transform ourselves into better people. Let’s hear our true voices. May our lives be healthy and may we all find abundant joy with family and meaningful friendships. Please share my message. Any Rabbis out there who want to incorporate my ramblings into their Rosh Hashanah speech, I grant full permission.”

Originally published in the Purim 2021 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.