Could it be that the path toward peace in the Middle East is quietly being paved by cancer patients? Imagine ultra-Orthodox, modern-Orthodox and secular Jewish women and Muslim and Christian Israeli-Arab and Palestinian women who had never met before leaving their political and sectorial views at the door and hugging and dancing with each other.
That actually happened, during a two-day retreat in the Daniel Hotel at Ein Bokek on the Dead Sea, organized last month by Life’s Door (www.lifesdoor.org), a voluntary organization that helps families cope with illness and the end of life. With roots in the US and its primary activity now in Israel, it has reached over 20,000 patients, family members and professionals who are grappling with these issues in their personal and professional lives.
It was founded in Jerusalem 11 years ago by oncology Prof. Ben Corn of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine, chairman of the radiology institute at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, and his wife Dvora Corn, an occupational, family and marital therapist specializing in working with patients and families facing life-threatening illness.
“Our vision,” they said, “is that every person will have an understanding of and internalize his or her mortality and finitude so they can live more meaningfully.”
The Brooklyn-born professor was only 11 years old when his father died of prostate cancer, and had been told his father was “away on business trips” to explain his absence from home.
“That’s the way it was in American society. Despite the best of intentions, people simply did not have the tools to deal with such tragedies. Kids weren’t even taken to funerals,” he said.
Near the end of Passover, an emergency phone call informed his mother and two siblings that his father was gone.
“There was no preparation, no goodbye, only shame and grief,” said Corn, who a few years ago was presented with the President’s Volunteer Prize.
Corn was pretty much the only male at the Ein Bokek retreat and mostly kept behind the scenes. Each cancer patient came along with her mother, sister, daughter or female friend. He lectured at the event on medical issues, while Dvora was involved in sessions dealing with personal issues. The event was held in Hebrew and English with simultaneous translation into Arabic.
The retreat for 42 women was the gift of Sonja Dinner, president of the DEAR Foundation in Switzerland. Some of the events were filmed to make a documentary spotlighting women with breast and gynecological cancers to educate and dispel shame or secrecy among women in the poorest countries, regardless of religion, nationality, color or race. Previous retreats did not include such a wide variety of participants.
Dinner told the participants she hoped the retreat would “empower women and enable them to prevent, screen for and advocate better care for such cancers.”
Ahava Emunah Lange, an Orthodox mother of five and Beit Shemesh resident, has been battling ovarian cancer, which she contracted at the age of 36. Accompanied at the retreat by her mother, Lange said: “Every individual has an opinion, whether based on personal reasons, religious beliefs, social pressure or even political and religious brainwashing.
As I see it, there are two alternatives for achieving peace: the political/governmental one, which the individual rarely has influence on, and the personal/individual one, to which each one of us has access.”
“A vacation at a Dead Sea hotel and “a chance to meet and interact with women from different backgrounds was something I knew I would enjoy... Our first meeting was in a large circle. As I looked around the room, it became clear that my mom and I were in the minority as Orthodox Jewish women. We were interspersed with a few other religious Jewish women, secular Jewish Israelis and many women wearing hijabs and speaking in Arabic. Communication was made possible by two translators who carefully translated every word into either Hebrew or Arabic.”
As they shared and discussed their individual journeys, Lange told The Jerusalem Post in a post-retreat interview, “I felt our exterior appearances fading into the background. The flow of emotions mixed in with our similar paths created a feeling of unity, and our group breathed life into an almost palpable energy. Each woman told her story, and we shared very similar fears, hopes and responses. The more each woman committed to sharing, the more our exteriors melted away and allowed us to draw closer.”
After hearing a lecture on the benefits of massage therapy, Lange asked an Arab woman to partner with her to practice with.
“S. wasn’t ready for me to massage her, but she volunteered to try what we’d just learned on me. I closed my eyes and felt her hands working on the knots in my shoulders and my neck. After we finished the workshop, S. asked to take a photo together, and that was a poignant and sentimental moment for me. It was the smile, the physical contact, and the acknowledgment of making a connection and friendship.”
Lange recognized at the retreat an English-speaking Christian Arab patient from Bethlehem whom she had encountered previously at Shaare Zedek Medical Center’s oncology department. With the video cameras banished from the room, Lange and J. learned and practiced the art of belly dancing, accompanied by Arabic music. The women, recalled Lange, “seemed to let go... and the movement of our bodies and our incessant laughter was our common language.”
In talking sessions, women patients felt an emotional release and shed tears.
“It was the first time since my diagnosis that I truly mourned the loss of my womanhood when my ovaries were removed, and it came out while listening to one of the women share her own story. It was a unique opportunity,” said Lange. “It took so little for the ice to melt.”
Lange, who came on aliya from California in 1991 with her family (who together became Orthodox), has lived with the specter of cancer most of her life. Her paternal grandmother was a carrier of a defective BRCA1 gene and died of breast cancer at 40.
Her father contracted colon cancer in his early 50s; fortunately, he underwent major surgery and has been cancer-free for the past decade. When Ahava was tested, she was found positive for BRCA1, which greatly raises the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
She was diagnosed in the emergency room of Hadassah University Medical Center with stage-III ovarian cancer in July 2012.
“My father, an orthodontist, consulted a friend who is a top breast cancer surgeon at Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba. He recommended the surgery be performed by Prof. Uzi Beller, head of gynecology at SZMC. I showed up at his office without an appointment and begged him to help me, and he did.”
After the oophorectomy, she went through chemotherapy. Her oncologist at SZMC is Prof. Nathan Cherny, who is well known for his expertise in giving emotional support to patients and palliative medicine to relieve pain.
“I owe my life to Prof. Beller and Prof. Cherny,” Lange said. “I was never angry at God for my cancer. I was sometimes angry at myself for not being up to what I should. I have been blessed with miracles.”
Ten months later, the cancer returned as a metastasis, stage IV. She was included in a clinical trial at the Jerusalem hospital and given PARP inhibitors to fight it. Although it’s a double-blind study and she doesn’t know if she is part of the treatment group, Lange feels better and optimistic.
“I am fortunate that there is so much expertise in Israel in BRCA, with clinical trials going on. If not, I would have to go abroad, but it is all here.”
Her husband David, who works for a hi-tech company, “is my rock. He goes with me to every consultation and chemo treatment. I also have very supportive parents, brothers and other relatives,” she said, although her coping with the disease is not easy on her children, who range in age from 13 to five.
Life's Door, which had merged with Ma’agan (a support center for people living with cancer, has in the last few weeks changed its Hebrew name from Tishkofet (“Perspective”) to Gisha La’Haim (“Approach to Life”) to make it more understandable to the public.
It also has a new director-general, Sarit Oren, who spent much of her career in the Israel Defense Forces (doing strategic planning) and, with a master’s degree in running educational frameworks, worked in voluntary educational organizations. At one time, she joined Dov Lautman, the industrialist who headed Delta Industries and founded and chaired the Hakol Hinuch movement to strengthen public education. Although he was for years almost totally paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), he had a profound effect on her.
“At first, I saw a man with a tube in his throat, and I had difficulty looking directly at him. But we sat together for two hours and talked about everything – education, social gaps, disease, death and hope,” said Oren. “To me, he seemed completely healthy. When he died, it was very difficult for me.”
When the voluntary organization closed, it was suggested to her that she meet the Corns at Life’s Door, which six months ago was looking for a new director-general. Ironically, Oren herself had a brush with illness before last Rosh Hashana, when after a mammography her family doctor called her and matter-of-factly told her she had a tumor in one breast. Furious about the way she had been informed, Oren understood the need for tact and sensitivity on the part of physicians. Fortunately, the tumor was benign.
Under the new director-general, Life’s Door will put additional stress on spiritual advisers for patients with cancer and other serious diseases.
“Most people die of chronic illness, including cancer. Elderly people are today a tenth of the population, and in the years to come, the figure will triple,” said Oren. “Patients must be given hope and learn to expand the borders of life. People used to die by 65 or before. Now people live into their 80s and 90s and beyond. Our organization offers the gold opportunity to run the end of your life.”
She recently bonded with her (healthy) mother, who is in her 60s and had never discussed the end of life with her.
“I asked her about the significance of her life and how I could help her when it ended. She told me she wanted to be buried in a casket, which is not common in Israel, and that she would want everybody at the funeral to recall something funny that happened at her. She spoke matter-of-factly, without tears, and at the end said: ‘Thank you!’” Life’s Door has trained some 40 “spiritual advisers” around the country in 800-hour courses taught by six experts. They can be rabbis, but they can also be in other professions with at least a bachelor’s degree in relevant subjects and they don’t have to be religiously observant; some may themselves be cancer survivors who know how to relate to others, said Oren. Their fees are subsidized and controlled to be minimal.
“When people are diagnosed with serious diseases, they go straight to the Internet, which gives only technical medical information but no emotional or spiritual support.”
Spiritual counseling began in the US, where Christian clergy went to hospitals to provide spiritual support to patients. It expanded to rabbis of all stripes who had been busy conducting ceremonies like bar mitzvas, weddings and funerals but not spiritual counseling. They learned how, and the idea was transplanted to Israel.
Looking to the future, Oren would like to place spiritual trainers in hospitals, geriatric homes and other institutions and not only individually, with help for family members as well as the patient.
“We want in the next three years to change public dialogue about terminal illness and death and teach medical staffers to have more compassion and empathy.”
She hopes that in five years, experts from Life’s Door will appear in Knesset committees and other forums and help promote legislation that would set down at least a minimum number of required job slots for counselors in healthcare institutions.
“Every doctor, nurse and social worker should be trained in how to meet the emotional and spiritual needs of patients,” Oren concluded.