Coming Together at CancerGuides Israel

September 20, 2012

By James S. Gordon MD

People with cancer often come to me with a central question: “What else can I do?” This has two parts: What other therapies are available than the ones my oncologist prescribed? And, second, what can I do? How can I participate actively in my own care?

For Israelis and Palestinians, this question is fundamental. Israelis, like Americans, are faced with a multitude of (often conflicting) treatment choices. For Palestinians with very limited treatment options, a cancer diagnosis—even for some of the most treatable forms of the illness—is often accepted as a death sentence. In both cases, “what else can I do?” is a question whose answers are of central importance to the well-being of patients—one that The Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) has been answering for twelve years in its US CancerGuides trainings.

CancerGuides Faculty Member Moshe Frenkel MD, who leads efforts for Integrative Oncology in Israel, reminded me that CG Israel took 7 years from initial idea to fruition. On September 3rd-6th, we held the CG training at the Ben Gurion University site in Be’er Sheba, Israel. Well over 150 people applied for the 100 available slots. 14 of the 100 who came were Palestinians–physicians, surgeons, and other oncology professionals from the West Bank who were deeply committed to learning the material and courageous enough to come together with Israelis in a climate which is hostile to such interactions.

For 3½ days we—Moshe Frenkel, MD; Dawn LeManne, MD of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York; and longtime CMBM faculty Debra Kaplan, LCSW; Henry Dreher; and myself—lectured. We discussed how to create a comprehensive program of integrative care and explored its individual elements—mind-body approaches, group support, nutrition, exercise, touch, Chinese medicine, and spiritual practice–and came together for powerful small group experiential learning. Participants explored and asked questions about the new information we provided and cultivated a deeper understanding of the importance of being present, loving, and open minded with people with cancer and their families as well as with themselves and one another. Phyllis Glazer, a star of Israel’s television food shows, gave practical and delicious food preparation demonstrations, and Dr. Eran Ben-Aryeexplored the research on cancer fighting herbs indigenous to the Middle East.

As always though, it was the small groups that were most memorable. I was particularly touched as I watched the Israelis and Palestinians, in my group, overcome initial suspicion and the pain that inequities in health care cause (Israel’s per-capita health budget is roughly 30 times that of the West Bank’s) and come to know and appreciate each other as professionals and as people. By the final group, an Israeli psychologist was saying she wished that a Palestinian doctor could be her personal family physician and Palestinians and Israelis were speaking of how medicine and helping others transcends all political differences. “We are hope givers” concluded a Palestinian physician who heads a hospital in the West Bank. “We must stay in touch with each other and help this program to grow.” “Last night, for the first time,” added an Israeli physician, “I have taken Palestinian people in my car. I hope one day it will be routine for us to ride in each other’s cars and visit in each other’s homes.”