Eva Haller had one foot on the plane to Kenya on behalf of "Free The Children" last August, when she was told she had cervical cancer.
Treatment could not wait, so the American Board Chair had to cancel her plans to accompany Mia Farrow and FTC founder Craig Kielburger as they set out to film the ongoing tragedy at the refugee camps in Kenya. Philanthropist, humanitarian activist and force of nature extraordinaire, Eva is used to making things happen, not standing still.
At eighty-one years young, Eva has been a warrior for good causes since joining the Hungarian resistance movement at only twelve years old. She worked alongside her older brother John, who was killed crossing the Yugoslavian border to join Tito and his partisans just months before Hungary was liberated.
Eva survived, came to New York, cleaned houses and later earned a masters degree from Hunter College in social work. Her life took off.
And now her fifty plus years of philanthropy on behalf of the oppressed are the living legacy in her brother's memory. Determined, and intensely focused, she did not want to give up the trip to Kenya. But cancer was one fight where she would have to surrender to treatment in order to win.
As she emerged from the shock of her diagnoses, her first email to friends began with her signature wit. "No one in my family ever had cancer, so I couldn't have it either, " she wrote, "I decided to donate my cervical cancer to Yoel (her loving 'co-conspirator' and husband of 25 years) since he is a retired OBGYN ... and that was clearly HIS territory." Dr Haller accepted the role and for the first week Eva carried on in denial with no symptoms to dissuade her, feeling healthy and whole.
For a woman who loves fiercely, defines fearless and creates courage in others, this was the ultimate test. There were now daily reminders of her cancer: letters, emails, chocolates and a lemon tree, as well as invitations to stay with devoted friends from Gaza to the Galapagos. Like the prettiest girl in high school, Eva's cancer drew an outpouring of attention, at once flattering and bewildering.
"I rather like this new person," she wrote when her thought process changed, " I think and feel deeper. Today at the hospital I got scared because this is now my cancer and the road to travel is solitary without a map." Asked to join a hospital support group, she accepted gratefully, "To be a part of my sisters with gynecological cancers, for I will learn and share and gain strength."
Eva began grueling five day a week internal and external radiation treatments combined with chemotherapy and then sent out a second email entitled, "Homeostasis."
"Years ago, I took a course on Homeostasis, a theory which states that our body is always striving for equilibrium. Isn't that neat? It now liberates me from trying for normalcy and health. My body will be taking care of it," she said, " But ... the main force of my homeostasis has been all of you. I cannot ever describe the effect of each email, phone call or butter lamp lit in Bhutan to help me." A global citizen indeed.
Wearing a red hat as a statement of her femininity, power and energy, Eva wrote, "It actively represents warmth ... sun up and sunset." She and Yoel tried to go out in the evenings to a concert or ballet or movie. "We don't always stay to the end, but at least we go."
Her dialogue with us revealed a few fears, but also a great sense of humor. A third email read, "My Bikini Line: I was told at the beginning of my cancer that I would not be able to wear bikinis for a while because the radiation would be hitting that exact area. But I never wore one anyway, and at 81 years old it would be presumptuous of me to change my style of dress!"
In mid-September after 25 treatments, Eva took a short break and she and Yoel were able to fly to Toronto for Free The Children's "WE DAY" where 20,000 teenagers joined together in a stadium to celebrate their sixteen years of building 800 schools for children around the world. Eva's excitement was palpable. Her smile glowed.
Having now finished treatment, Eva has three months of freedom before being re-tested. She has earned the peace but finds it hard to rest. November will see her in action once again as she Chairs the Gala for "Sing for Hope," and is honored for her work on behalf of The Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art where she is a valued trustee.
"I don't dwell on the possibility of not being cured," she wrote me," After all the people who spent their healing energy on me I would feel that I am failing them if I am still cancerous. But I am so grateful ... it has all been humanizing for me. " We should all be so human ... and so inspiring.