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Originally published Friday, May 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Nicole Brodeur

Microsoft writer makes documentary on losing hand to cancer

"My Left Hand" will be shown at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Museum of History and Industry as part of the 2009 Seattle Jewish Film Festival.

Seattle Times staff columnist

It started in the palm of his hand.

A small lesion. A little lump.

Once it was removed, Joshua Isaac figured "it wouldn't be a problem again."

Oh, but it was just the start of a trip down a medical rabbit hole that would lead to the amputation of Isaac's left hand.

It also spurred him to create a documentary chronicling his battle with cancer.

"My Left Hand" will be shown at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Museum of History and Industry as part of the 2009 Seattle Jewish Film Festival. The screening is free but organizers will be accepting donations for the Northwest Sarcoma Foundation.

"I wanted a way to express myself through this whole traumatic experience," said Isaac, 36, who lives in Seattle and works as a writer at Microsoft.

"I knew it was going to be an emotional, deep, layered story, and I hope people walk away from it with an idea of what it's like to go through cancer."

It's impossible not to, since Isaac's openness is a huge part of the film. You feel like you know this guy, which makes his emotional journey even more so.

But "My Left Hand" is not just the story of a young father felled by epithelioid sarcoma — a cancer so rare that Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, which specializes in rare malignancies, saw only 16 patients between 1982 and 1995.

It is a valiant effort to make spiritual sense of his suffering.

"I won't say I wasn't angry with God," Isaac said. "I don't want to go; I don't want to have to lose my life and not watch my children grow up.

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"Every day, I struggle with that question," Isaac asks in the film. "What does death mean?"

He seeks answers by featuring his parents, who both died while the film was being made; and two of his rabbis.

One, Rabbi Mark Spiro, asks the same question Isaac does: "How is it that people who are good can be challenged ... with terrible, tragic circumstances?"

Another, Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, tries to answer: "There is a future world beyond this world," he says. "The suffering in this world is not meaningless."

His assurance may comfort the audience as it watches Isaac endure chemotherapy — chipper at first, then nauseous and fitful.

The camera sits in on Isaac's appointments at the University of Washington Medical Center, his pensive strolls through Gas Works Park. The roughhousing with his two young sons.

There is a strange sort of fun in a scene in which Isaac allows his son to pull out clumps of his hair after chemotherapy; and another in which his friends supportively shave their heads at Rudy's Barbershop.

But there is great sadness watching Isaac remove his wedding ring, since he won't have the hand to wear it.

"My Left Hand" won the Survivor Spirit Award when it premiered at the 2007 Seattle True Independent Film Festival. It also won the Audience Choice Award at the Tacoma Film Festival that year.

The validation has helped, especially since the cancer is back, this time in Isaac's lungs.

But he is hopeful, undergoing new treatments and working on another film — an "ethical will" for his three children.

"It's my hopes and dreams for them," he said. "My thoughts on the importance of contributing to the world."

"My Left Hand" is one of Isaac's contributions, a way to show how any of us can be hit, and fight back with not only what we know, but what we are striving to understand.

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

Chemo is a certain shade of orange.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Nicole Brodeur

My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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