Jerusalem brothers reinvent the concept of cancer caregiving

It might take a village to raise a child, but it takes an army to defeat cancer. “Winning the battle against cancer is like going to war. You cannot win the battle without family support or without the support of an outreach organization because there is tremendous physical and fiscal pressure on both the patient and the family,” Dr. Dina Ben-Yehuda, Director of the Hematology division at Hadassah Ein-Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem maintains.
ICSN tends to a mother and her cancer stricken daughter in Jerusalem

A Jerusalem-based outreach organization called the Israel Cancer Support Network (ICSN) is using a variety of innovative methods from providing cups of coffee and personal drivers, to cutting through layers of medical bureaucracy, and most importantly a smile to help cancer patients endure the process involved in battling the dreaded malady.

While Israel is internationally renowned for its medical innovation, science alone is not always enough to cure cancer. Dr. Talia Golan, Head of the Sheba Medical Center’s Pancreatic Cancer Center in Ramat Gan, is bringing the latest in cancer treatment to patients from around Israel. “We have an excellent medical system and we work closely with the social workers, but there are also times when patients, especially adults, don’t complain even though we know they are in need of assistance. So, any outreach organization, which can help patients, doctors and social workers in a timely way, is great.”

Nearly 30,000 people a year are diagnosed with cancer in Israel. It is also the most common cause of death in the country and accounts for 25% of total mortality. While oncologists use the most advanced technologies and medications to try and push their patients into remission, they also admit that an injection of personalized cancer caregiving goes a long way towards helping the patients overcome the emotional and fiscal challenges that inevitably become part of the battle.

Dr. Golan explains the challenges, “There are never enough helping hands around, especially when it comes to dealing with a cancer-stricken child. Parents are forced to miss work and the physical and fiscal elements in coping become challenging.”

ICSN emerged from Darkei Miriam, a Jerusalem service provider started by Rabbi Israel Weingarten in 2002. Rabbi Weingarten’s wife, Miriam, succumbed to cancer after a heroic battle against the disease. Rabbi Weingarten and his sons, Arele and David, were inspired to create the organization in her memory so that they could offer the human kindness and support their mother received during the course of her illness.

Dr. Talia Golan Photo Credit: Sheba Medical Center

Starting with one car, transporting patients to and from metro Jerusalem hospitals, ISCN now has dozens of volunteers who transport between 100-150 patients a day in their own vehicles to hospitals in Jerusalem and metro Tel Aviv and Haifa. According to statistics, Hadassah Hospital (Ein Kerem and Mt. of Olives) treats 3,500 cancer patients per year. 4,500 are treated at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv on annual basis. ICSN plays an integral role in getting cancer patients to and from these hospitals every single day.

“The number of requests for our assistance keeps on mushrooming because of the growing numbers of people who are unfortunately being diagnosed with cancer. We are adding over 700 sick people in need of assistance every year. We already serving over 2,000 people a year. Sadly, 25% of the patients are young children, and the many of these families are in dire need of not just physical assistance from the doctors but also financial assistance,” says Arele Weingarten. 

“We work closely with the social workers at the various hospitals,” he added. “For example, we are dealing with a sick child at Sheba Medical Center. The child received quality cancer care and the social worker wanted to release the child to recuperate a bit at home before returning for more treatments. But the child’s parents are divorced, and the house is a mess, not livable, because both parents are in dire financial straits. So, we worked with the hospital to make sure that the child could stay an extra day or two until we were able to help the family clean-up the house and have the resources to keep the child safe, healthy and fed till the next appointment.”

Even a simple cup of coffee or tea can provide a physical and emotional antidote for both patients who are awaiting diagnoses and treatments and family members, who can end up staying with their loved ones for many hours during the entire process. 

“The ICSN coffee corners or care stations are like an oasis for me and my son who has been sick for many years,” admits a duly concerned parent. “Just having the opportunity to enjoy a hot drink throughout the day can relieve stress and allow you to relax.”

According to Arele, just at Hadassah Hospital alone, over 100,000 cups of coffee and tea are being enjoyed by patients and their loved ones, gratis, on a monthly basis. No one else in Israel offers this type of TLC. “ICSN has enabled patients to better fight their disease both from a physical and emotional perspective. There have been times when patients could not even afford expensive cancer medications that were not covered by their insurance. But ICSN would pay for those medications. It’s a fact that they are helping us save lives with their selfless efforts,” adds Dr. Ben-Yehuda.

Though the numbers of patients and their growing physical and fiscal needs continue to spike, the indefatigable volunteers at ICSN continue to forge ahead. Ever the optimist, Arele says, “If we can continue to think outside-the-box and provide a variety of services from securing expensive medications for poor patients to even sending a cancer patient with his wife to recuperate in a hotel, this is what motivates us on a daily basis.”



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