Talya Turgeman Blilious was a person who had everything. A beautiful, intelligent and modest woman with two degrees in social work who also learned fancy-cake baking, she had a devoted husband; three wonderful children; a spacious Jerusalem home; vacations abroad; and a life of full of love and admiration.
Then she got breast cancer at the age of 36 that ended her life, despite a noble struggle, a decade later.
Breast cancer at the age of 26 or 36 is not the same as when the malignancy strikes three or more decades later, Talya and her family were soon to learn.
“I knew Talya for about five years,” recalls Dr. Shani Paluch-Shimon, director of the Talya Center that just opened in her memory at the capital’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center (SZMC) – the first and only one of its kind in Israel – to treat young women with breast cancer.
“She was an amazing, wonderful, special, gentle person. I felt very connected. I was one of the last people to speak to her before she lost consciousness on her deathbed at home. She actually asked me how I was doing...”
The center is not a separate building but an interdisciplinary assemblage of SZMC experts working on the hospital’s seventh floor with special attention to young women stricken with cancer.
Young women who get breast cancer have additional issues that older women do not face, said Paluch-Shimon in an interview with The Jerusalem Post
a week after the opening of the Talya Center.
If without a partner or single, they wonder if they will ever find a partner and have children. They have budding careers that are suddenly disrupted. They may also have fertility issues, as chemotherapy could disrupt their ovarian function, said the SZMC oncologist.
They may even be pregnant when they are diagnosed with cancer, which can be particularly frightening for them.
They could go into premature menopause even though they have not completed having a family. They could very well have a BRCA breast cancer mutation, which significantly raises the cancer risks and can be handed down to their children.
“The decision-making process of how to cope with it is more complex,” says Paluch-Shimon, a fluent Hebrew speaker who came on aliya from Australia 15 years ago as a young Zionist and daughter of an Israeli mother. She was active in the Bnei Akiva youth movement and studied medicine at Monash University, a leading university based in Melbourne.
She did her oncology training at Sheba Medical Center under Prof. Raphael Catane, who, ironically, is now also working at SZMC’s oncology department, and was mentored by Prof. Bella Kaufman. At Sheba, she received two prestigious research grants in 2004-5 and an award for professional excellence in 2011.
Paluch-Shimon joined the flourishing Jerusalem medical center in January. The Turgeman and Blilious families approached SZMC director-general Prof. Jonathan Halevy and committed themselves to endow the Talya Center on an ongoing basis.
OVER 350 people attended the dedication and opening of the center in SZMC’s Heidi Steinberg Auditorium on the second anniversary of her death. As Talya was the daughter of Zion Turgeman, director of Ariel, the Jerusalem municipality’s company for sport, culture and leisure management and the wife of influential businessman Eli Blilious, the auditorium was full of VIPs. They included Mayor Nir Barkat, three of his deputies, Zionist Union head Avi Gabbay and Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov.
Blilious sat in the first row with his children Roni, Arad and Amit. Roni, the eldest, just discharged from the Israel Defense Forces, was in third grade when her mother was diagnosed.
“I really didn’t understand it all,” she said from the stage. “My mother was such a special person – so successful at what she did, hard-working, writing, cooking and baking. She set up several businesses and always paid special attention to those who worked with her.”
During her cancer treatments at Sheba, Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and Hadassah University Medical Center, “she still cooked for us and advised us. We didn’t feel as if she had cancer. We never felt that something was not OK. This center will help families understand what heroes go through. Abba, Arad, Amit and I miss her so much.”
“Talya was diagnosed with breast cancer at 36, and for 10 years until her death, she was treated in several hospitals and received dedicated medical treatment. At the same time she continued her life, her work and the raising of our children,” said the widower.
“This is a happy and sad evening. It’s hard to believe she is gone. We met when she was 15 and I was 17 at the Gymnasia Rehavia High School. She gave all of herself to others,” he said. “She never liked donations given just to show how wealthy one is. After her passing, we decided to commemorate her memory in a way that will help other women to receive a supportive package of services, not just medical ones, from a specially trained staff.”
THE SZMC director-general didn’t know Talya personally, as she was not treated at his hospital.
“But since Dr. Paluch-Shimon joined us, I learned about her uniqueness and her brave struggle against the illness. I know that if diagnosed early, as many as 90% of patients can recover. There is no more honorable and worthy way to commemorate Talya,” said Halevy.
“We have done everything at Shaare Zedek to prepare the center with everything and everyone needed. The staff under Dr. Paluch- Shimon will diagnose and treat young patients and prevent deaths. It will enable young women who suffer from the disease to deal with all its aspects under one roof.”
Songwriter, singer and actor Idan Amedi performed on stage a song he wrote, Bizman Ha’aharon (Lately), he wrote in Talya’s memory.
ALL PATIENTS through their 40s will have a personal escort or coordinator (“patient navigator”) who will ease the way through diagnosis and treatment, said Paluch-Shimon.
There are some 4,500 new cases of breast cancer patients in Israel each year; a tiny minority are older men. In high-income countries, breast cancer is the biggest killer of women under 45 after road accidents and suicide.
A quarter of all women with breast cancer are under the age of 50 when first diagnosed.
The death rate among younger women in higher than among older patients.
The idea of a personal escort who is neither a doctor nor a nurse will help guide the patient through a medical system from the moment of diagnosis, noted Dr. Paluch-Shimon.
“The patient navigator also helps the patient deal with the paperwork and bureaucracy in their health fund and elsewhere.”
Young women with breast cancer have to cope with its impact on femininity, sexuality and self-image, she continued. “Many of them are taking care of young children and elderly parents. Most of the patients will recover.”
Paluch-Shimon, who has written dozens of medical journal articles on breast cancer in young women, also noted that when she headed a service for treating the disease, she ran a number of focus groups.
“Most of the women complained about loneliness. I hope the Talya Center in Jerusalem will make them feel less alone.”
As most breast cancer research is conducted on older women – because breast cancer is predominantly a disease of older women – much more remains to be learned about treating young women, said the Talya Center head.
“We will soon start a study on pregnancy after breast cancer.” Jerusalemites, she continued, “are special. With the donations we received, all our treatments are open to all patients. There are no special health fund forms to fill out, no special charges.”
People often ask the Talya Center director if she doesn’t find her work depressing.
“I love what I do. I learn so much. It is so challenging. My patients are my greatest teachers.”
LIAT BAR, who was also diagnosed for the first time with cancer at the age of 25, rose to the podium to describe her experiences.
“I recovered and set up an organization called Atid Varod [Pink – or Bright – Future]. At 35, I was diagnosed again. Today, I am 46 and healthy. I had a boyfriend, but he ran away when he learned of my first diagnosis. Then, nobody said the words ‘breast cancer,’ only ‘the disease.’ Nobody talked about it. The sky falls on young women who learn of it. It’s a torture. I had always thought cancer was a death sentence. I had so many questions.
“Doctors then were used to dealing mainly with elderly women. There was so much bureaucracy. I wanted to know if I would be able to have children, how my breasts would look. Nobody could answer me.”
Bar was matched up as a young patient with a 67-year-old woman who had survived cancer.
“She had support from her family; I had none of that. But when I was waiting for radiation treatment, another young woman waited next to me. We set up a Facebook page called Gam Ani Haliti [I Too Got Sick].”
A TV show learned of the Web page and called them.
“They gave us three minutes to talk. Two hours after the broadcast, 2,000 young women in our situation contacted us for help. Today, we are on Facebook as a support group. And now there is the Talya Center. If it had existed when I was sick, it would have helped so much,” concluded Bar, who is healthy today, maried and the mother of a beautiful daughter.