A brave boy's journey with cancer

A non-profit took children battling cancer to Italy, where they hobnobbed with soccer legends.

Amit Katz 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Amit Katz 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Amit Katz, who's nine but insists he's about to turn 10, smiles infectiously as he sits in his Hod Hasharon home and recalls the fulfillment of a dream in Rome earlier this year. Amit, who was diagnosed with a form of cancer called 3B Hodgkins lymphoma exactly a year ago, puts his hand over his mouth in apparent shock as his father, Boaz, jogs his memory. "Tell him about Kaka," says Boaz, who works at a bank. The small, blond-haired boy, who has an impish grin and clearly enjoys being the center of attention, knows how to tell a story, building up to its climax. "Oy no, don't mention that!" he says, scolding his dad, and then bursts into laughter as he happily retells the tale. Amit had joined a dozen other children with cancer on a trip to Italy in January funded by Magshimim Halomot (Realizing Dreams), a nonprofit organization that helps children with cancer. "We met the Italian president [Giorgio Napolitano] in Rome, and I gave him a picture with a model of Jerusalem, and we posed for a photograph," he recalls blandly, straight-faced. "He spoke to us in English. I don't remember what he said." But his eyes light up with excitement as he gets to what was clearly the highlight of the trip for him - a soccer match between two of Italy's top teams. "We also saw a game in Rome between Juventus and Lazio, which ended one-all," he begins, proudly remembering the score. Then, almost as an afterthought, he casually mentions that he also got to meet the players - and others from AC Milan who were also at the game. The names roll nonchalantly off his tongue as he happily relives the experience. "I met [David] Beckham, who was playing for Milan, and Ronaldinho gave me a kif [Hebrew slang for a high-five]. I also got Toti's autograph," he says. "Then they asked me who I wanted to meet, and I said, 'Kaka,'" referring to the Brazilian star who was at the time said to be the highest-paid player in the world. Amit beams as his eyes look upward, picturing the magical moment in his mind in which he shook Kaka's hand, but quickly blushes with embarrassment. "They had a report on the Sports Channel, and all the kids at school made fun of me because of the way I pronounced 'Kaka,'" he says. "'Are you the one you said Kaka?' they asked me. I told them to shut up." In his excitement, Amit had mistakenly emphasized the first syllable, making it sound like the Hebrew word for feces, rather than the second syllable, which is how he knows the name should be pronounced. Still, it was a dream come true. "Afterward, I just lay on the ice on the ground in Milan," he says. "It was really fun." When he is not in the hospital undergoing treatment or on a fun trip here or abroad, Amit says, he attends the Ben-Gurion School in Kfar Saba. "At school, they know I have an illness, and often when I had no hair, they asked why I came to school with a cap. I made up excuses, like I said I was cold in the head or I just felt like it. I made up excuses," he says. Amit suddenly becomes serious when asked about the aim of the trips abroad, such as the one to Italy. "To forget the illness," he says without hesitation. "To have fun after suffering. And it works. You forget everything for nine or 10 days." HIS MOTHER, Robyn, who made aliya from Australia more than 20 years ago, has nothing but praise for the trips abroad. "These trips overseas are like a lifesaver," she says. "They take about 13 kids each time, with a doctor from one of the cancer wards who knows how to deal with kids like this, and they don't go into a state of panic. "It gives the kid a chance to escape his life. He meets other kids who also have or had cancer and for one week he is free. He doesn't have to see doctors or a hospital. "The kids are treated like heroes. They show people that cancer is not necessarily a death sentence. "Amit's also got two sisters, and the main thing we're trying to do is ensure that life goes on as normally as possible. I've told them often that life must go on, and he goes to his basketball practice and we fixed up his room, where he likes to play on his PC station. He's very sociable and he has a lot of friends." Last month, Amit had yet another operation - to remove cancerous lumps - at Sheba Medical Center's pediatric department. His mother exhibits a detailed understanding of Amit's illness, and her outlook is constantly positive. "This is part of life," Robyn says, "and I'm sure he'll be fine." It has not been an easy task, but she shares her son's optimism and directness. "Basically, we finished the chemotherapy with him in December, and in some cases it doesn't work, so they have to repeat the treatment. "We did a CT scan and they found some lumps in his stomach. Then they did a biopsy, but unfortunately the results were not conclusive, so two months later they did another biopsy and again the results were not conclusive. Now the doctors decided to remove the lumps so that they can perform a proper diagnosis. And that's the stage we're at now." Robyn has nothing but praise for the doctors and staff at the hospital, who she says are "amazing" in the way they treat the children and help parents get through bureaucracy that can be "flabbergasting." AMIT IS all smiles as he talks about his second trip abroad with another group of children with cancer to the United States in April. "We were 13 in the group, including Palestinians. One Palestinian boy didn't talk at all - he couldn't speak Hebrew or English, only Arabic," he says, frowning. "One boy was hungry all the time... he's only six-and-a-half, and they kept giving him bananas." Again, he works up to the punch line, a skill he has apparently learned from watching a lot of television, according to his two older sisters. "We were in Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York. We saw the Statue of Liberty and Chinatown, and we bought 'I love New York' T-shirts," he says. "We went to the White House, and I saw [President Barack] Obama get on a helicopter, but he didn't have time to meet us. I also saw [Bill] Clinton and shook his hand. He spoke to all of us about Israel, and the peace agreements. "The whole time he looked at me. I don't know why." Like the charismatic Clinton, Amit oozes charm - and it's no surprise to his sisters that he was the focus of attention. As they sit at the dining-room table listening to Amit talk, Raz, 17, and Netta, 15, laugh with him and tease him at the same time. Each has has her own way of dealing with Amit's illness. "It's all a matter of getting used to it," Netta says. "In the beginning, it was difficult, but after a year, I've already gotten used to it. When he suffers, it's hard. I try to play with him and make sure he doesn't spend too much time alone, to make sure he laughs and has fun." "The recipe with Amit is playing Monopoly and eating ice cream," she adds, laughing. "He likes the feeling of having lots of money. He will either be a realtor or a pilot when he grows up." At the end of last year, before the trip to Italy, an organization called Amutat Haim invited Amit to fly in a small plane with a pilot. After several flights, Amit was given his pilot's "wings" - and he invited his two sisters to sit in the back of the Cessna. Netta's face fills with horror as she remembers the flight. "He sat in the front with the pilot, and you sit in the back thinking, 'I'm going to die. It was nice meeting you, we had a short life, and now I'm going to die.'" Raz is more reticent than her sister to talk, and Amit decides to take it upon himself to encourage her, saying he will interview her himself. "How did you feel when you heard I had the illness?" he asks directly. "In the beginning, sad, but I see it as 'a small thing'... He has a greater chance of getting better than with other illnesses." Amit persists, trying to drag more out of his older sibling. "How do you cope with my illness? Has your attitude to life changed?" he asks again. "Live today as if it's your last day," she says, putting on a brave smile. "That's what I heard on television today. We fight a lot. It's very 'happy' here when we fight." Amit relinquishes his role as interviewer, and quickly reverts to the little brother role. "Most of the time, she's to blame," he says. "The oldest are always to blame," Raz retorts. "And the second child sandwiched in the middle is ignored," Amit quips, looking at Netta. "And the youngest child is spoiled!" she shoots back. "He has a lot of friends; he belongs to a basketball club; he goes on trips..." Bringing the subject back to his son's illness, Boaz intervenes, soberly: "The fun is all good, but there is a reason. You have to see both the great hope and the great struggle. All these trips are part of the same struggle for hope in the future. That's the message. Between all these trips are heavy periods of illness, treatments and time in hospitals." "Ichsa, as they say," Amit sums up, using the Hebrew slang that approximates the word "yuk" in English. Asked what he wishes for now, Amit says, matter-of-factly: "I hope the next trip will be to Australia. I would like to go to either London or Sydney." His native Australian mother, Robyn, plays the tough Aussie to take on the disease, expressing a strong determination to triumph over it. "Amit is a real little fighter," she says. "He knows that he will beat cancer and that it is just a matter of time. To help kids like this, parents must remain optimistic and look for the small pleasures in life. It's important to laugh a lot and enjoy the simple things, like a hug or a kiss." Robyn notes that Amit was born on Tu Be'av, July 28, 1999 - the Israeli equivalent of Valentine's Day. "He is called Amit because amit in Hebrew means friend," she says. "When I was pregnant with him, he was always trying to say hello - he kicked and moved a lot." DR. YORAM Neumann, head of the Pediatric Oncology Outpatient Clinic at the Edmund and Lily Safra Children's Hospital at Tel Hashomer, says it appears that Amit is now in what is termed "remission." "We removed several lumps in the most recent operation, and there is no disease in the glands that were taken out," says Neumann, a well-respected expert who has been in charge of Amit since his diagnosis with Hodgkins 3B. "We are in a situation now where he is about six months out of chemotherapy and probably in remission." Neumann says preliminary tests show Amit has responded well to the treatment so far, and admires the way he has handled himself. "After having gone through the procedures of needle biopsies, as well as operations and chemotherapy - he came in once every two weeks for a whole day of treatment, with all the side effects of vomiting, nausea, loss of hair and missing school - he's coping very well," Neumann says. "He's a very brave boy."