Rochie (Rachel) Schitskovsky-Ivker was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was thirty weeks pregnant. Her diagnosis marked the beginning of a long journey, from an induced birth, through a long year of treatments, and many years of long term effects. Rochie didn’t know it at the time, but it also marked the beginning of a new professional path, and a new passion.
Rochie discovered that breast cancer survivors have unique needs, that can’t be addressed by their normal support network. They need information, opportunities to talk about their experience, and the support and companionship of other breast cancer survivors. They find themselves seeking help here and there, feeling confused, scared, and overwhelmed.
Rochie was lucky: a friend who went through breast cancer was there to support and encourage her, and her degree in biology helped her make informed decisions and take charge of her experience. Many other women don’t have such resources. Rochie wanted to change that.
In 2006, Rochie founded “Hadadi – The Center For The Breast Cancer Survivor” in Jerusalem. Hadadi offers all the services that breast cancer survivors need under one roof. “We basically ask, what does a woman need from the moment she is diagnosed and for years later,” explains Rochie, “and then say, let’s provide her with that.” Hadadi supplies women with information, psychotherapy, workshops, and even a “wig bank”. But most importantly, it alleviates their loneliness by providing them “with a physical community of women that can help one another.”
Mutual help is a central theme in Hadadi. The word “Hadadi” hints to the word “dad” (breast in Biblical Hebrew) but means “mutual”, and the center creates ways for breast cancer survivors to support each other. One of them is the Yad Be-Yad (hand in hand) program, that matches “veteran” breast cancer survivors with women who are currently undergoing treatments. The volunteers are trained to accompany the patients to treatments, encourage them and ease their fears. They form a real relationship with them, says Rochie, “so that the woman can actually feel comfortable talking to the volunteer about things that bother her.” Thus, the volunteers become “a life line” for women who are too weak and ill to get out and about.
Revital Katz-Yekutielly, who runs Hadadi’s treatments program together with Rochie, emphasizes that the program empowers the volunteers as well. “When they go through their training, they go through a process of looking back, and encounter very unique women who bring their own perspectives to the table. The accompaniment itself brings a lot of satisfaction, a feeling of great mission. They experience a return of power, especially after the helplessness they experienced when they were ill. It’s an encounter with their old self from before the disease, or rather, with their improved new self.”
After they finish their treatments, survivors need each other’s companionship more than ever. As Revital says, “breast cancer is an illness that has a beginning but doesn’t have an end.” It leaves women physically, emotionally, and sexually altered. Additionally, most of them have to take hormonal therapy for five to ten years, and suffer various side effects, from hot flashes to a decrease in libido and early menopause. And they have to deal with these ongoing changes while feeling increasingly alone. “Everyone thinks it’s over, and the woman is supposed to go back to life,” says Rochie. “For them, her cancer is gone. But this is actually when she starts internalizing what happened, starts being afraid of the cancer coming back.”
Hadadi offers breast cancer survivors opportunities to face their difficulties together, by providing them with various support groups and activities, from psychotherapy to belly dancing. “It’s all just tools to be able to talk about the experience,” Rochie explains.
Ruth Ebenstein, a breast cancer survivor, agrees that the opportunity to interact with other survivors makes a tremendous difference. “While I was still healing from my lumpectomy, my sister, who is psychologist, urged me to find a support group ASAP. Research shows that survivors who join support groups survive longer and better.” Ruth approached Rochie, signed up to weekly sessions with Revital, and joined all of Hadadi’s activities. “Yoga, belly dancing, guided imagery, psycho-drama, couples therapy, reflexology. You name it! I was the Hadadi poster girl.”
Looking back, Ruth feels that her time in Hadadi turned the crisis of cancer into an opportunity for growth. “Hadadi is a friendly, warm, welcoming place. It’s a place that tells you: you’re going to kick this. You’re going to be fine. The breast-cancer sisterhood bolstered me and made me feel that I would survive this, and thrive. And I did!” Ruth started writing and lecturing about her experience, and found new friends in surprising places. She is currently writing a memoir about her journey.
Many women experience a similar sense of empowerment when they come to Hadadi. “We have a saying here,” says Rochie, “that we have to find the ‘luck’ hiding within the unluckiness. This disease brings many good things. Though, of course, everyone here would have agreed to go without it!”
All the different services are offered for free by volunteers. “It’s amazing,” Rochie says with passion. “We have people who are willing to invest their time and energy to do the treatments because they feel that it’s a worthy cause. We have psychotherapists, psychologists, and social workers who are happily giving time out of their tight schedule.”
Rochie herself works tirelessly to make Hadadi thrive. With Revital at her side, she manages the center, talks to the women when they first arrive, and helps them find the services that are best suited for them personally. Ruth remarks that Rochie helped her feel more optimistic: “I called Rochie and right away, she opened her heart. She listened to me and encouraged me that I’d make it through. She was there every step of the way.”
Rochie also helps women who were recently diagnosed to evaluate their options and make informed decisions. Women often have to choose between different treatments, most significantly between mastectomy (removal of a breast) and lumpectomy (breast-conserving surgery, followed by radiation). Most of them don’t have the tools to asses the medical implication of each alternative. Rochie walks them through their options, trying “to help each woman understand where she is and make the decision that’s right for her personally.”
Rochie runs Hadadi at great personal cost. Officially, she is supposed to earn minimum wage. In practice, she often waives her salary since the center is running a deficit. Her biggest challenge, she tells me, has always been fundraising. People generously give their time to Hadadi, but the center needs funds to thrive. Rochie and Revital are not fundraisers, nor do they have the time for it, since they do everything in the center as it is, from planning programs to answering the phone. “We change lives,” says Rochie, “but we need funds to continue.”
If you wish to donate to Hadadi, see www.hadadi.org.il. The organization’s Facebook page and This video offer a glimpse into the daily activities in the center. Professionals who wish to contribute their services to the center, either as therapists or in other capacities, can contact Rochie through the site.