Tamir Gilat turns a death sentence into a life with meaning

“I was living from holiday to holiday – from Hanukkah to Passover, from Passover to Shavuot."

TAMIR GILAT: Goals, Giving and Gratitude.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
TAMIR GILAT: Goals, Giving and Gratitude.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
‘I owe my life to cancer research,” says Tamir Gilat.
Gilat was born in Berkeley, California in 1962 to Israeli parents who were studying at the University of California. The family returned to Israel in 1964, and Gilat grew up in Ramat Hasharon. He was a talented athlete and became the goalkeeper for the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer team, retiring from soccer upon graduation from Tel Aviv University Law School.
In 2000, Gilat experienced what he calls his midlife crisis, divorced his wife and went back to school, earning an MBA and beginning a new career as an entrepreneur in the energy field. In 2003, he married Keren Nahari, a prominent lawyer. Gilat had a daughter from his first marriage, Alma, and he and Keren had two daughters, Gabrielle and Mia.
Keren had been diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after they met in 2003, but her cancer had gone into remission. “In October 2010,” Gilat recalls, “I started to feel discomfort in the upper part of my stomach.”
His father had died at age 51 from cancer, and Gilat joined a clinic in a major hospital that was considered expert in cancer prevention and detection. Gilat arrived for his annual checkup and told the staff that his body was “not in harmony.” The head of the institute reassured him that everything was fine and gave him medicine to treat an ulcer.
Several weeks later, the pain became severe, and Gilat decided to undergo a CT scan at a private clinic. After the scan the CT doctor was waiting for Gilat outside his office, and the news was not good. Both his left kidney and his pancreas were filled with tumors. Gilat had two different types of cancer – kidney cancer and pancreatic cancer.
“I told the doctor, ‘If I die now, my toddlers will never remember me. I am not going to die until they have sufficient memories of their father.’ I realized that everything depended on how I would manage the situation.”
At the time, Alma, was 13; Gabrielle was almost three, and Mia was a year and a half.
The next day, Gilat and Keren returned to his regular clinic and informed his doctor of the diagnosis.
“The doctor said, ‘I suggest that you don’t do any treatments because you have just a few months to live. Enjoy your last days, take a trip around the world and say goodbye to your friends.’ I looked at him, and I said, ‘No way. I will do it my way. I will live for many more years.’” Gilat underwent a complicated and difficult surgery in which part of his pancreas, together with his left kidney, were removed. One month later, he began oncology treatments at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer.
“It was then,” he says, “that I met my angel, Dr. Talia Golan.”
DR. GOLAN is considered one of Israel’s top pancreatic cancer specialists. Gilat began his chemotherapy treatments and during the treatment, uncannily felt that something was off-kilter. He contacted Golan and told her that the cancer had returned and was in his liver. She was skeptical but asked him to come in for tests. After blood tests and a CT scan, his fears were confirmed. The cancer from his pancreas had indeed spread to his liver.
“It was my second death sentence in four months,” says Gilat. “There were no more treatment options. I went to bed that night, knowing that I needed to say goodbye to my family and my friends.”
The next morning, Golan called and asked him to return to the hospital. She informed him that an international clinical trial of a biological drug called Olaparib, which is known as a Parp Inhibitor, was about to be initiated for patients who had breast or ovarian cancer and were BRCA mutation carriers. The name “BRCA” is an abbreviation for “BReast CAncer gene”; BRCA1 and BRCA2 are two different genes found to impact a person’s chances of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer. In addition, said Dr. Golan, research indicated that the BRCA gene also affected the pancreas. Gilat had been tested by Dr. Golan and had the BRCA gene. Dr. Golan informed him that patients with pancreatic cancer who were BRCA carriers were also eligible for the clinical trial.
Gilat quickly agreed to participate in the trial and offhandedly asked Golan, “What is the world record for staying alive with this drug?” She replied, “It should help for a few months.” Gilat looked at her and said, “Our deal is that I am going to stay alive for many years with this drug, and you will make sure that I get it.” Gilat began the trial, taking 16 pills each day, with an interval of 12 hours between each dose of eight pills. Every month, he had to be checked to see if the pills were having the desired effect.
“If you are ok,” he recounts, “You would get more pills for the next month. If not, you would check into a hospice.”
After taking the pills each month for 13 months, Gilat returned as usual to Sheba to receive his dose for the following month. The clinical trial coordinator told him that there was no need to be examined further because the trial had ended.
“I realized that I was the only person that stayed in the trial. Everyone else had died.”
IN HARMONY: At home today with Gabrielle and Mia. (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem)IN HARMONY: At home today with Gabrielle and Mia. (Credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
GILAT CONTINUED taking the pills for 51 months, but in September 2015, he felt ill again. He contacted Golan and told her that he thought that something was amiss in his spleen. He arranged for an ultrasound at a medical center in Herzliya and received his third “death sentence.” The cancer had metastasized into his spleen, liver, the remaining part of his pancreas, large intestine, stomach and diaphragm. Gilat, who was deputy president of the Israeli Soccer Association, had been planning on attending the Israeli national team soccer game in Haifa. After the difficult diagnosis, he had to decide whether to return home or continue to the game.
“I had to decide if I should continue living and go to the game or return home. I decided to go to Haifa for the game and deal with my health the next day.”
Gilat returned to Sheba Medical Center the next morning and met with Golan and Dr. Raanan Berger, director of Sheba’s Institute of Oncology. Dr. Berger confirmed that Gilat’s kidney cancer had spread throughout his internal organs. He explained that Gilat was eligible to join another clinical trial involving an immunotherapy “cocktail” consisting of two drugs, Irvoy and Opdivo. Before beginning the clinical trial, Gilat insisted on undergoing major surgery to remove most of the metastatic mass of cancer from his body.
Several days after his second surgery, Gilat’s wife Keren became critically ill with her own cancer, which had returned (metastasized breast cancer). Instead of taking three weeks to recuperate, he left the hospital after just one week to be with her. Tragically, Keren died in June 2017.
Gilat had endured three brushes with death from his cancer. After his first death sentence, Gilat realized that his life had changed drastically.
“I was an ‘important’ businessman and was full of myself. I worried only about success and money, and suddenly it was all gone. I had no future to look forward to because they told me that I was going to die in three months.”
A friend took Gilat to a golf course, and after taking out the clubs, Gilat hit a beautiful shot.
“I said, maybe I’ll start playing again. My friend laughed and said, ‘In your condition, I wouldn’t buy green bananas. At that point, I realized that I needed to ‘buy green bananas’ and eat them for as long as I could live. I realized that life exists in the here and now. I don’t need to plan for the future. If it lasts for two months, then let’s do the best for those two months. I need to live every day like it’s my last, full of respect, humility and modesty.” Gilat began to reach out to help others with cancer by listening to them, speaking with them, and offering inspiration and support.
“I know how to analyze their situation because I am in the same position. I have the ability to give them mental support. I listen to their stories. Every conversation is different – the needs of each person are different. Sometimes, they want a virtual hug or medical directions, or they want reassurance. Some need spiritual support or ideas for using different kinds of tools, like meditation, nutrition or reflexology.” In addition to his work counseling cancer patients, Gilat became active in supporting cancer research.
“If I did not have those clinical trials that saved my life, I would not be speaking to you today,” he says. “I have proven that cancer research works. Both clinical trials became commercial drugs used to improve and extend the lives of people who have cancer. The first clinical trial was for a biological drug that is used to treat breast cancer, ovarian cancer and pancreatic cancer. This drug is now FDA-approved and is known as Lipresa. The second clinical trial was an immunotherapy drug that is used for kidney cancer, melanoma and non-small cell lung cancer.” GILAT IS the volunteer chairman of the Israeli branch of the Israel Cancer Research Fund (ICRF), established in 1975 by a group of American and Canadian oncologists and researchers who wanted to utilize the singular “out-of-the-box” abilities of Israeli researchers to help perform pioneering cancer research. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, many Israeli researchers were leaving the country due to a lack of available funding for research, and the fund was created to ensure that the most promising medical researchers would remain in Israel.
Numerous breakthroughs have been made by Israeli research conducted via the ICRF, including the development of Gleevec, which is used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia; Doxil, used in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer as well as AIDS; p53 – a key tumor suppressor; RAD 51, which identifies the likelihood of breast cancer occurring in women who carry the BRCA2 gene; and Velcade, used in the treatment of multiple myeloma. ICRF has provided more than $75 million to support nearly 2,500 grants to outstanding Israel-based cancer researchers, including Nobel Prize laureates Profs. Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko.
Gilat explains that three conditions are required for applicants to be considered for funding from the ICRF: 1) the researcher must be Israeli, 2) the research must be done in Israel, and 3) grant selection is made by ICRF peer review in the United States by North American cancer researchers who do not know the applicants. To date, the majority of funding for projects has come from sources in the US and Canada. When Gilat began working with ICRF, Israeli grants made up just 2% of donations. Today, he says that it has reached 15%, and his target is to increase Israeli contributions to 25%.
“I believe that Israel has the financial strength and the social responsibility to put more money into cancer research. Israelis don’t like to donate money to research and we need to change this behavior. I want to be certain that there is high-level cancer research in Israel. There is no reason for Israelis not to support basic research. I will not rest until everyone in Israel understands the importance of the Israel Cancer Research Fund.” Gilat divides his life into what he calls the “three TG’s” – Goals, Giving and Gratitude. He explains that he has set short-term goals for everything he does.
“I was living from holiday to holiday – from Hanukkah to Passover, from Passover to Shavuot. Suddenly, Jewish holidays became signs for me. I am not Orthodox, but I realized the significance of this. Birthdays, the first day of school – I run my life by short-term events, like an athlete living from game to game, from day to day.” He gives to others through his work speaking with cancer patients, and he says that by developing gratitude for what one has in life, one can achieve self-sufficiency, joy and the ability to cope with personal catastrophes. He still takes the immunotherapy cocktail every other week and takes tens of pills and injections each day. When he wakes each morning, he opens the window, sees the garden, the sun and the trees, and has a big smile on his face. He ends his day with a smile, hugging and kissing his daughters goodnight.
“In my condition, everything is tentative. I don’t know how I will feel, what the side effects will be and how much energy I will have. I try to live every day as though it’s my last day, but from a good perspective. I talk to cancer patients and their families, or think about how to develop a greater understanding for supporting cancer research in Israel. I am very satisfied with what I am doing – taking care of others gives you energy and strength that helps you overcome your own problems, making you full and satisfied.” “This story is not about me,” says Gilat. “It is about giving strength to cancer patients and understanding that it is our responsibility to support cancer research in order to secure our future, the future of our children and of generations to come.”  

Readers interested in supporting cancer research in Israel can visit https://icrf.org.il/?page_id=1070