When Tali Ayal was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, she never imagined she’d be on the other side of the helping hand that got her through the toughest four years of her life. Fast-forward eight years later and she is happy to share how she got through those years of chemotherapy and radiation and the lessons that continue to shape her life today.
At age 62, Tali was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. At the time she was a retired English teacher who spent her days volunteering for various community programs, traveling, working in her garden and living a healthy, active and fulfilling life. When she got the call from her doctor that her annual screenings came back with cause for concern and further testing, she recalled, “I felt like the earth was pulled out from under me. My life went from one of the living to one consumed by doctors’ visits and hospital treatments. Before cancer, I loved going to the theater. During treatment, I could barely keep my eyes open long enough to watch a television program.”
Though Tali was fortunate enough to have a supportive family, friends and neighbors, the logistical burdens of being in treatment were more than anyone could take on. Her two grown children were already living on their own. Helping her get to the hospital for treatments in Jerusalem meant leaving their own homes outside of Jerusalem at 7 AM in order to stay with her and then driving her back home and getting her settled before going home to their own families. Even the most devoted children would have a hard time managing that on a regular basis!
“When I was preparing to start radiation treatment, one of the nurses asked me how I planned to get to and from treatment,” said Tali. “Treatment was going to be daily for nearly seven weeks. My children had lives of their own that they needed to maintain for their growing families. I told her I would take cabs or drive myself. Of course, these were not options that she was willing to support. She gave me the number of the Weingarten family, and that is where my relationship with the Israel Cancer Support Network (ICSN) began.”
Arele Weingarten helped create ICSN with his father and brother. It is a transportation program for cancer. He had recognized this need while his family was providing support for his mother, Miriam, during her battle with cancer.
When they started the organization, there were only a few people, with Arele, his father and brother doing the driving. Tali was ICSN’s first “customer.” She added, “Arele’s father was a kind man. I learned a lot about him and his late wife during our rides together. She was a generous and kind woman and she raised her sons to value charity and public service. The way that they took the transportation service and expanded it to a full support network attests to their devotion to this cause.”
Over time, more needs were recognized, both for transportation and other forms of support. The organization grew by adding volunteer drivers and other services like household help, financial aid, peer support and medical referrals so that cancer patients could gain access to the best doctors available.
“David Friedman became my regular driver and he would pick up patients from all over Jerusalem and neighboring areas. The patients came from all types of backgrounds. We became a support system for each other as well,” she recollected. “Radiation is tiring and a long process. I had to go in for 32 treatments in all (64 rides). Many of us were drained by whatever treatment we were currently receiving, but Mr. Friedman was so patient and empathetic. He made sure we got into our homes safely. It was literally door to door service – and if a passenger felt ill, he would stop on the side of the road and help them until they felt able to continue traveling. There was no need for anyone to feel ashamed for needing to vomit on the side of the road …we were in this together”
After Mr. Friedman died, Tali kept in touch with his family and sends flowers to them every Pesach. “So many people I went with on those rides with have passed on,” she said sadly. “I never imagined I would be one of the ones who survived. I was already a grandmother when I was diagnosed. I don’t take any part of my life for granted now.”
Today, not only does ICSN offer free personal transportation, but the organization has grown to offer financial assistance, emotional support to patients and their families, household support, comfort corners and more.
Tali has been cancer-free for eight years now and has gone back to doing the things she loved pre-diagnosis, with even more zest. She’s traveled to Africa and Europe, attends concerts and shows, works in her garden, has her children and grandchildren over every Friday night for Shabbat dinner and has returned to volunteering.
“Before cancer, I volunteered doing things I enjoyed because they were pleasant. Community centers, botanical gardens or theater – now, I volunteer for ICSN’s ‘care corners,’ a place no one ‘wants’ to be in.”
Along with warm drinks and fresh pastries, the care corners serve as a supportive nook for patients, families and the staff who spend days, if not months and years, surrounded by cancer. Tali added, “This illness is draining on the patients and their families. We can’t take away the need they have to be in the hospital, but making it a more pleasant experience for them is a value I feel blessed to be able to be a part of.”