A year after 19-year-old Reut Bernard from Rishon Lezion volunteered to serve in the army, copies of the army newspaper Bamahane are scattered around her room, and she can smile.
At age 14, Bernard’s situation was completely different – she suffering from cancer, and undergoing difficult treatments, hurt feelings from friends who were avoiding her, and the pain of other youngsters hospitalized with her. Despite everything, she didn’t lose hope. “They didn’t allow me to cry more than two minutes a day,” is how she explains her eternal optimism.
Bernard was born, raised, and educated in Rishon Lezion. Her parents are divorced and she has a sister three years her junior. If you were wondering, she also has a boyfriend. At first glance, she looks like any soldier – the only remaining evidence of her illness is a deep scar on her thigh.
“At the end of 9th grade, I began to feel pain in my leg; it felt like a sore muscle. For four months they got worse,” Bernard says.
Her mother, Orit, recalls that at first the pain would occur after physical exertion, but later seemed to have no cause. She says that the first X-rays showed nothing except a mass on her daughter’s leg. After an MRI and a biopsy, things were clearer.
“During Passover in 2008 the doctor asked me if I knew what I had, and I said I had no idea. He said ‘You have cancer.’ I cried hysterically because half of my family has died of cancer. At the time, the word meant one thing – death,” Bernard recalls.
The doctor told her that if she had been diagnosed 10 years earlier, he wouldn’t have given her much of a chance, but that technology had developed and there was hope. Luckily, the tumor wasn’t metastasizing.
In July 2008, Bernard underwent an operation in which doctors cut out her muscle and scraped the bone. She describes her disappointment at not being able to walk after the operation. She progressed from a wheelchair to a walker, and from a walker to crutches to the cane with which she walks today.
As she began the treatments, Bernard was forced to deal not only with cancer, but also with loneliness. Her young friends couldn’t take in what was happening to her. “I dealt with everything alone,” she says. “No one wants to hear about cancer, it’s horrible for them. As far as they know, it’s a death sentence. I would have run away, too, if I could.”
As Bernard was undergoing her long rehabilitation at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, she received her first draft notice. She appeared in the draft office with everyone else, only to be told – after multiple exams, paperwork, and authorizations – that she couldn’t be drafted, but that if she wanted she could volunteer for military service.
“I was surprised, because I was already healthy. I thought that my limp would just drop my medical profile. I had hair and wasn’t taking pills,” she says.
Bernard says that at first, she debated whether to do national service with the Larger Than Life organization, which helps children who have cancer, or join the IDF like everyone else. In the end, she decided to volunteer for military service and was put in charge of subscriptions and education at Bamahane. “When I got to the newspaper, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one from my department there.”
“I like to take pictures and hike, so sometimes they let me join photo shoots,” Bernard says. “When I can, I still take part in activities with Larger Than Life, and this summer I’ll be a counselor at their camp.”
Knowing how hard it is to face comments about a bald head, Bernard also recently donated hair to the Zichron Menachem charity.
“It was hard for me to face the fact that I’m challenged, but they only let me cry two minutes a day, so that’s how I got through it – with a smile.”