Mikveh after Cancer Treatment
Adjustment to changes in the external appearance of one’s body can sometimes be difficult. All the more so when the change involves parts of the body that in our society are considered essential to our femininity. Thus it is not surprising that many women go through an adjustment process after surgery or radiation treatment. A particular concern that is often voiced is being seen unclothed by the mikveh attendant. This causes some women to delay going to mikveh, losing the physical closeness of their spouse during an already stressful experience
While the standard procedure at many mikva’ot is for the woman to stand before the mikveh lady wrapped only in a towel for final inspection prior to immersion, it is important to understand that there are halachically acceptable alternatives. The halacha requires that an adult Jewish woman witness the immersion. Most mikvaot hire an official mikveh attendant who has been trained for her role. However, many mikvaot would be willing, in special circumstances, to have another woman witness the immersion. Thus, if the woman feels uncomfortable with the attendant but would be comfortable with a particular Jewish female friend or relative, special arrangements can often be made. [There are also other cancer survivors who are willing to volunteer for this role. Such arrangements can be made through Sharsheret.]
The main role prescribed in halacha for the mikveh attendant is to assure that all hair is under the water. In general, mikveh attendants perform an additional service in double-checking the back and other hard-to-reach places. However, the final responsibility for iyun (checking) rests with the woman herself. Therefore, if the woman is careful and checks in a mirror, rechecking by another woman is not strictly required. Thus, a woman who feels uncomfortable being seen with just a towel can put on a robe and have the attendant check only her hands and feet. Or she can prepare herself, enter the mikveh so that only her head is above water, and have the mikveh lady enter just far enough to see that all her hair is immersed.
If even this arrangement is not acceptable to the woman, there are additional arrangements that can be made with rabbinic consultation. A woman should never feel that treatment for cancer will put mikveh immersion out of her reach.
It is also not unusual for women undergoing cancer treatments to be concerned about physical intimacy. Mikveh use can raise those fears as well. Discussion of this issue, alone or with the guidance of a health professional, can often help in the adjustment.