Beyond the pills and the pain

Lat week, two Jerusalem-based organizations joined forces for the first time to host a special seminar for women coping with cancer.

breast cancer ribbon 88 (photo credit: )
breast cancer ribbon 88
(photo credit: )
a'agan, the Jerusalem Support Center for People Living with Cancer, provides essential support services for men and women of all ages and backgrounds in the city. Beit Natan, the Women's Health Resource and Cancer Support Center, promotes ongoing good physical and emotional health for religious women in Israel. Last week, the two organizations teamed up and packed the Renaissance Hotel with more than 100 local women, cancer survivors and strugglers last week for a free day of lectures, workshops and pampering aimed at providing the tools and emotional support so necessary to maintain quality of life in the face of the disease. The seminar enabled the women to move beyond their day-to-day stresses and network with others in the same situation. There were serious lectures on such topics as "Human Dignity in the Face of Medical Intervention" by Prof. Binyamin Korn, head of the Radiotherapy Institute at the Ichilov Medical Center; "Mom's Got Cancer - Challenges for the Family" by Dr. Michal Brown, psycho-oncologist of the Sharet Institute at Hadassah Hospital; and the personal journey of cancer survivor Rachel Dadon. And there were plenty of fun activities, too, including relaxation exercises, a cosmetics session led by a beauty-care specialist, free cosmetic gifts and a tasty, healthy luncheon. For those with a sense of humor, the irony of being in probably the only room in Jerusalem where wearing a wig or a head covering did not define religious affiliation was not lost. Every year, over 2,000 Jerusalemites are diagnosed with cancer. And while Jerusalem hospitals provide some of the best medical care in Israel, they can do little to help their patients cope with the stress, anxiety and emotional challenges presented by this diagnosis. This is where organizations like Ma'agan and Beit Natan are providing much-needed services. Ma'agan's slogan - which also reflects Beit Natan's philosophy - is "no one should have to cope with cancer alone." It may be merely coincidence that both organizations were founded by North American-born women - Ma'agan by New Yorker Shelly Abrahami and Beit Natan by former Montreal resident Chaya Heller - after close friends of theirs were diagnosed with cancer and were unable to find adequate emotional and psychological support. "After a good friend of mine got breast cancer, I started looking for ways to help her emotionally," Abrahami relates. "She would go to yoga, lectures, etc. But there was no one place where she could find the support she needed. Then my friend went to the US and discovered the Wellness Community and Gilda's Club. We decided to take this successful concept and adapt it for Israel." In 1999, Abrahami, a businesswoman, founded Ma'agan together with Miriam Shiffman, an art therapist, and Ilana Kadmon, a specialist in oncological nursing. Today, the organization has 16 weekly groups and serves about 500 persons a year. Ma'agan offers a variety of free programs to cancer patients and their families in both Hebrew and English. These include support groups for cancer patients and their families, guided imagery, bibliotherapy, exercise for women, bereavement support, yoga and mind/body empowerment. Ma'agan has been recognized by the Israel Cancer Association, the various health funds and the Jerusalem municipality since 2002. "Today, people live with cancer for years," Abrahami continues. "But many still feel they have a death sentence hanging over them. It is still hard for them to plan for the future. We help them to deal with this and to go on living with better quality of life." Although the majority of those taking advantage of Ma'agan's services are women, the number of men is increasing and now makes up over 30 percent of clients. "It's hard for men to reach out for help," Abrahami explains. "But men are changing and we are there for them when they need us." In January, Ma'agan will be consolidating all its activities under one roof in a new center in the Goldstein Youth Village. This will enable the organization to provide new services, such as a playroom to care for children while parent(s) attend activities, lectures and a cooking class for men whose wives have cancer. Heller founded Beit Natan, which is a non-profit organization named in memory of Nathan and Dora Schreiber, in 1996, after losing a friend to cancer. "When I lost my friend, I was in advertising," she recalls. "I was having a mid-life crisis and wanted to do something more meaningful with my life. So I created Beit Natan in response to a real grassroots need." Headquartered in Bayit Vegan, Beit Natan serves religious and haredi women from all over the country via its Lev Rachel telephone help-line for women with cancer, its twice-yearly retreats and its health education and patient support groups. In addition, Beit Natan promotes breast cancer awareness and early detection among religious and haredi women. It also has a special fund to aid families of those coping with chronic or life-threatening diseases, and a home hospice visitation program. The Lev Rachel help-line uses volunteers who are recovered cancer patients and who understand exactly what the caller is going through. All calls are confidential and anonymous. The help-line is open to all women and Heller says the line has fielded calls from secular, Russian and Arab women as well as religious. Beit Natan operates three cancer support groups - one in Bnei Brak and two in Jerusalem, including a Hebrew-speaking group and an English-speaking group currently in formation. Heller acknowledges that working in the religious community presents particular challenges. "When we started in 1996, we couldn't even mention the word cancer, let alone breasts, in haredi newspapers and magazines," Heller recalls. "Today, that has changed - you can mention cancer but you still can't say breasts. It is called women's cancer." She adds, "What is special about these groups is that they are socially and culturally sensitive to the religious community. A religious person has a relationship with God and cancer impacts on this. There is no answer to why someone gets cancer. But we can accept the challenge God has given us with love and grow from it. I have seen women reach the heights of humanity through this challenge. This is what we want to promote." Beit Natan also runs two retreats a year for 40 to 50 women at a time. "Cancer therapy is stressful and strenuous," Heller notes. "We give [our clients] a vacation with creative activities and alternative therapies. It is R&R with a program. They leave revived both spiritually and physically." Heller also notes that rates of preventative care are low in Israel compared to the US and Europe, and even lower in the haredi community. "We promote early detection of breast cancer by calling women over 50 on the phone and talking about mammography," she says. And how do the women who attended the seminar and must live with cancer view their situation? Esther, a modestly-dressed mother and grandmother from Bnei Brak, was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago. "I grew up in the shadow of breast cancer. My mother got it when I was 16. I always knew that one day it would also happen to me. But my mother, who was 50 when she was diagnosed, lived 30 more years. So I also knew that there is life after cancer. "My mother would say, 'If we are already in this club, let's do something to help.' Therefore, the minute I was feeling better, I volunteered for the Lev Rachel help line. The women who call are afraid of the unknown. They are not sure what lies ahead. I explain things to them. I let them know that I work full time and that they too can get through this and go on to live normal lives." Coming to the seminar day gave her a chance to "recharge" before going back on the help line, Esther says. Hassia was at the seminar to learn some more about coping and to meet others like her. Hassia, a blonde, 31-year-old single mother and new immigrant from Russia, was diagnosed with breast cancer a little less than a year ago. "I was in the middle of chemotherapy and I felt like a rag," she relates. "I couldn't even get out of bed. My friend told me about the Beit Natan retreat. I thought ironically, 'Yeah, just for me in this condition.' "But I went and it was amazing. It renewed me. At the end, I started dancing. It was the happiest and most relaxing experience I have had since my diagnosis. Now, I have joined a Beit Natan support group. Whoever has not gone through cancer does not know what it is like. These women do." Liat Nevo was 33 in 2003 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and looking for emotional and psychological support. "I saw an ad in the paper for Ma'agan and it was like a miracle. I joined the guided imagery and bibliotherapy groups. Cancer has a whole different language that healthy people cannot relate to. I felt these groups enabled me to express my most intimate feelings about fear of death, the burden on loved ones, etc. You can reveal things you cannot say anywhere else." Afterwards, Nevo, who was involved in community work professionally, became a volunteer for Ma'agan, stuffing envelopes and answering the phones. And when the position opened up, she became Ma'agan's Executive Director. "I am familiar with cancer and administration. So I come to Ma'agan with a real understanding of both sides of the coin," she says. For her, the day was both a personal and professional success. Concludes Beit Natan's Heller: "You have to have hope, even when the knife is at your throat ... and that is what we [all] try to provide." Ma'agan can be reached at: 02-5300101 or Beit Natan can be contacted at: 6446052 or The number for the Lev Rachel help line is: 643-3447