Battling Cancer at Hadassah

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Hadassah’s 44-year-old Sharett Institute of Oncology at Hadassah’s Ein Kerem campus has set the benchmark for preventing, treating and researching cancer in Israel. “Its legacy of cancer care is very strong,” affirmed the Sharett Institute’s new director, Dr. Aron Popovtzer.

“We’ve seen a 30 percent increase in patients this past year alone,” said Dr. Popovtzer, who became head of the Sharett Institute in July 2020. That number is in line with steadily increasing global incidence of cancer. “With almost 30,000 day visits, 40,000 in the clinics, 25,000 radiation oncology treatments and numbers still growing, we’ve run out of space.”

A new oncology centre, adjacent to the Sharett Institute, is in the planning stages. It will bring all resources together in a one-stop shop, from clinics and outpatient treatment to radiotherapy, surgery, laboratories and research. In addition, the centre will house specialised units for treating colorectal and breast cancer and melanoma as well as departments for psycho-oncology, pain relief and early detection and prevention.

As the world marks Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in September and Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, we highlight a story of a woman fighting cancer with the help of the Hadassah Medical Organisation.

Aya Gonen was 30 when she was told she should terminate her pregnancy with her second child in order to treat the breast cancer that had spread to her brain: “My Hadassah neurosurgeon, Dr. Yigal Shoshan, held my hand when he said: ‘I know your daughter has waited eight years for a sibling, but if that means losing her mother, she wouldn’t want it. Your pregnancy is too risky.’ With the heaviest of hearts, I terminated.”

That was in 2017, and by then, Gonen had already fought off aggressive breast cancer four times in seven years. She was first diagnosed in 2010, at the age of 23. Mastectomy was followed by what Gonen called “the all-inclusive package”—chemotherapy, radiotherapy and immunotherapy. And then it was over. For the next two years, she cared for her daughter Liya, worked, grew her hair back and tried to reconcile what had happened to her. And then, early one morning, she went into convulsions.

Gonen went back to Hadassah, where she learned that her cancer had metastasised to her brain. At age 26, she was in surgery to extract the tumour, and then in radiotherapy. Within the year, another brain metastasis brought her back again. “I suggested that Dr. Shoshan put in a zipper in my head,” she recalled. Six months after that, there was a third. And a year later, a fourth.

“I was caught in a loop in an unfair fight,” she said. “At times, it seemed simpler just to give up. I thought of making Liya a box with gifts and blessings for her bat mitzvah, IDF service, wedding—times I wouldn’t be with her—but then I forced myself to be positive.”

Despite the difficulties, Gonen and her husband, Tamir Ben-Yehuda, were determined to give Liya a sibling. In 2018, using in vitro fertilization and a surrogacy agency in the country of Georgia, Shaya, their second daughter, was born.

Gonen has been disease-free for four years now, though she remains on preventative oral chemotherapy and immunotherapy that will likely be lifelong. Meanwhile, she has been lecturing throughout Israel, offering tools to use positive thinking to help manage illness as well as advising on navigating the unique challenges that cancer brings to relationships, motherhood and self-image.

“My message is that life is here and now,” she said. “While we can’t control what happens, we can choose how we cope with it.”

Editors notes:

Hadassah UK proudly support Hadassah’s Hospital’s mission of peaceful coexistence, dedication to saving lives today, and finding medical solutions for a world of tomorrow.

THIS ARTICLE BY WENDY ELLIMAN, FIRST APPEARED IN THE HADASSAH MAGAZINE.

Wendy Elliman is a British-born science writer who has lived in Israel for more than four decades.


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