Israeli Hospital, Teacher Team Up to Reduce Cancer-induced Stress

High-school teacher Sandra Yosef-Hassidim joins Tel Aviv's Ichilov Hospital to employ Byron Katie's 'The Work' technique in a cutting-edge study.

Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber
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Alona Ferber
Alona Ferber

The labor strikes that so often cripple the country may create unwelcome stress for many Israelis, but for Sandra Yosef-Hassidim, a teachers strike that swept the nation in 2008 provided an opportunity for transformation. Frustrated by a months-long work stoppage that seemed to yield few results, the high school teacher from Modi'in read "Loving What Is," a best-selling book that outlines a framework for dealing with stress and negative emotions.

"I really wasn't interested in spirituality at all. I had a kind of Dutch, European, matter-of-fact kind of thinking," the 44-year-old immigrant from the Netherlands recalled this week.

Author Byron Katie, left, with Sandra Yosef-Hassidim.Credit: Miri Gattenyo

A friend had recommended the book years earlier, but it was only then that the once-cynical Sandra opened it up and "got really sucked into it."

Since then, Yosef-Hassidim, who immigrated to Israel in 1985, says she has successfully applied the book's teachings in her classrooms with 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders to help students who are experiencing stress - for example, during exams. She has also run workshops for other teachers, utilizing training she first received in the method, known as "The Work," in Los Angeles.

This past year, while on sabbatical, Yosef-Hassidim assisted a revolutionary project run jointly by Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv University and Tel Hashomer hospital, to test the effect of The Work on breast cancer survivors and on carriers of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 breast cancer genes.

The essentials of The Work, pioneered by Byron Katie - who developed the method in the 1980s after a 10-year battle with depression and eating disorders - bears a number of hallmarks: It features four questions and three "turnarounds" that are applied to the stress-inducing thought in question. "But it's more than that. It's much deeper," says Yosef-Hassidim, who describes The Work as "an intellectual meditation" with cognitive elements and parallels to Zen Buddhism and Zen meditation.

"We are disturbed not by what happens to us, but by the way we think about what happens," she explains. "Once you start questioning your thoughts, they lose their grip on you." Practitioners of The Work question stress-inducing thoughts, and test them against reality in order to "Love what is," as the title of the bestseller suggests.

Like Yosef-Hassidim, the director of the research at Ichilov, Dr Shahar Lev Ari, is a facilitator of The Work himself, and has been familiar with the method since 2004. He says he saw the potential for using The Work as part of a holistic health-care approach when he saw practitioners questioning cancer-related thoughts with Katie on stage at her international workshops.

The project at Ichilov, says Dr. Lev Ari, is the first experiment to look at the effect of The Work on cancer survivors and cancer gene carriers, and the first time that The Work has ever been placed under scientific scrutiny. The research project was funded by Katie's foundation and other private donors.

The results of the project, which had a total of 96 volunteers at the outset and took over six months to complete, were unveiled at an event at Ichilov on Tuesday. They showed a significant improvement in sleep quality and the sense of family support among the gene carrier group, and improvements in a number of quality-of-life indicators for the survivors.

Katie, who is in Israel this week to run a three-day seminar attended by several thousand people, attended the ceremony, where she was greeted with an ovation by a full auditorium that included the women who participated in the study.

Lev Ari says he plans to continue the research next year and to include patients being treated for cancer in the research as well. "We are only at the beginning of the work," Lev Ari says. He also confirmed that Ichilov will begin offering a program using The Work on a regular basis as a service to BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene carriers and breast cancer survivors in early March. Participants will have to pay to participate.

The idea that "suffering is optional" was met with resistance at first by the women who volunteered for the research, says Yosef-Hassidim, but in the end participants underwent a "transformation."

Hani Sade, a 44-year-old participant in the cancer gene study, says the weekly sessions helped her cope with the fear related to carrying the gene, and she describes the project as "a huge gift."

"Talking about it makes me shudder," she says.

In three months, the participants, who took part in a three-and-a-half-hour group session every week, in addition to one individual session, went "from being frightened and closed" to being "open and willing to face whatever they have to face," says Yosef-Hassidim. The sessions, which included about 15 women at a time, were "intimate, and a "very profound experience," she says.

Yosef-Hassidim estimates that there are currently thousands of people using The Work in Israel, and adds that she is one of over a hundred members of a working group that meets every month. She also volunteers for a 24/7 free helpline hosted by Katie's website, which is designed for people "needing occasional assistance or support in doing The Work," according to the website.

The Work "is definitely spreading" in Israel, says Yosef-Hassidim, "and it is a very good thing for our country, because there is a lot of stress here."

In particular, she says she believes the method could help mend divisions in Israeli society. She has attended workshops in the past with both Arab and Jewish members, and among her plans is a project "to set up a workshop in co-facilitation with someone from the Arab sector and have a joint group of Arab and Jewish members."



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