Topic of Cancer

Rachel Talshir has some good things to say about cancer - it makes you take responsibility, improves your sex life and develops awareness of the body. If you're obsessive, it can mean taking showers of vinegar and salt. If you're also talented, it results in a book filled with humor.

Whenever Rachel Talshir is asked what she felt when she learned she had cancer, she recalls that she "is standing in the middle of a big forest, by myself, holding a small penknife. In the air is a smell of a foreign, strange winter and at any moment something strong and agile is about to descend on me, something whose expertise is to surprise."

In her book "That Disease" (Am Oved, in Hebrew), Talshir describes the experience of the discovery of the cancer as a macabre paraphrase of Archimedes' shout "Eureka!" Her gynecologist informed her about the disease as he was palpating her breasts, while telling a story about picking mushrooms in the Judean Hills.

"The story went on and on and twisted this way and that and he went on feeling my breasts. When he shouted "I found it!" I was happy for him because he found the mushrooms he was looking for to make his stew. A minute went by before I understood that he wasn't talking about mushrooms, and it took another two minutes before I understood that I had no reason to be happy. Not for him and not for me - especially not for me."

Talshir has been "clean" of cancer for five years. Doctors don't use the word "recovery" and the patients are aware of the disease for the rest of their lives, but the diagnoses of the disease remain sharp, touching and filled with humor. On the plus side, she attests that cancer improves sexual relations; after all, the idea of approaching death and the sense of departing whip up the libido and accord every touch additional meaning.

Cancer, she explains, teaches us to appreciate our body anew. "I, for example, thank God every day that I have two breasts. I discovered that I love my breasts very much. I am just so happy that I have them."

Cancer makes us differentiate between the wheat and the chaff, between what is urgent and what can be postponed. In the language of the members of the "cancer club," a club no one wants to join but to which masses are admitted against their will, this categorization and the need to think about alternatives is known by the general name of "cancer as a turning point."

Indirectly, cancer also teaches us to go back to cultivating ourselves and our body. In Talshir's case, not only did she adopt a special nutrition method, the Kingston method, she also washes her body with vinegar and salt, because "everything that foams is toxic" (I was invited to sniff: she has a wonderful body odor) and perfumes herself with essence of geranium (but uses shampoo and conditioner and has her hair done like regular mortals).

The results are striking: her facial skin is radiant and unwrinkled and she possesses inexhaustible energy. On the brink of 50, Talshir looks terrific, and not only for her age. "That I owe to the cancer," she says. "It's true that my weight hasn't changed since I was 12, but something in the way I eat changed my body for the better." Because she and her two daughters wear exactly the same size, "I also never know which clothes they have left me in the closet."

"That Disease" is Talshir's fourth book. She previously published two novels ("Love Macht Frei," 2001, and "Meeting on the Brink of the Evening," 2003), which deal with the Holocaust - she is the daughter of survivors - and a short-story collection, "The Husband, Lover and King," 2001 (the books are available in Hebrew only).

One of every three people will get cancer, she writes, and "three out of three are afraid their whole life of the moment when they will fall ill with cancer." Nevertheless, cancer, like death, always comes as a surprise. "All of us," she writes, "are sitting on the same bench and waiting. Because of the withering waiting period, those whose name is called are liable to become confused and emit a sigh of relief." No, she did not emit any such sigh. In fact, she really wouldn't have cared if she had had to wait in vain for the disease for years.

Hard separations

As a girl, Talshir was embarrassed to invite children to her home in Be'er Sheva "because I didn't want them to see the kind of poor people's apartment we lived in." In contrast, the suggestion that we conduct the interview in her spacious, multilevel home in Tel Aviv's trendy Neve Tzedek neighborhood almost drove her spastic. It's not convenient for Talshir to show the conditions in which she and her husband Yoni Saar, 42, are living and raising their three children - daughters Dana, 21, and Talia, 13, and a son, Yahali, 17 - even though all the money they have was earned by Talshir and more so by her husband, the owners of Promarket, a marketing and sales promotion agency (

Talshir is an uptight type. "You have already seen for yourself that I can't drive and talk at the same time, so there is nothing to talk about in terms of being a mother and at the same time giving an interview," she says, explaining why we will not be able to do the interview when any of her children are home. "Because what if someone suddenly wants strawberries with cream? I won't be able to say I'm busy, because they'll tell jokes about it for years."

It's hard for her to do two things at once, she says, "because when I do something I do it all the way. That's why this book is about cancer. When I'm sick I'm sick all the way, too, and nothing short of that. When I was sick I worked at being sick with cancer."

Rachel Talshir was born in 1957 in Be'er Sheva. Among her classmates were journalist and writer Tamar Gelbetz, sociologist Dr. Dafna Golan-Agnon and Prof. Aviad Kleinberg from the Department of History at Tel Aviv University. Talshir and Gelbetz were close friends, but stopped speaking 10 years ago. "I once read a theory that girls who grew up in a home where there are only boys do not easily develop close relations with other girls," Talshir says. "That theory is apparently right about me, because my relations with girlfriends are always very difficult. I fall madly in love with my girlfriends and afterward there are hard separations." Ironically, Gelbetz, too, was diagnosed with cancer and two years ago published a book on the subject, "You're Doing Fine" (in Hebrew).

Talshir's father, Aryeh, was the head of the Be'er Sheva Labor Council and an amateur carpenter; her mother was a housewife and seamstress. She started her career as a journalist in the fourth grade as a "young reporter" for Davar Leyeladim, the children's magazine published by the now defunct but then highly influential daily Davar. "I went to a meeting of all the young reporters with Haim Topol at his home and I was very thrilled. That was the first time I had ever traveled by myself on the train, but like everything else in my life, from the moment I was chosen, I didn't write anything.

"I was so happy to make the transition from Be'er Sheva to the magazine of the Nahal Brigade. I was tremendously excited at having succeeded in becoming a journalist. I wrote three times as much as I had to. I was also terribly sorry, even if in retrospect, that of the four of us who were there, I am the only one who is still writing. But since then I have been fired from so many places that I could write a book just about that. There is no one easier to fire than me."

She continued her service in Army Radio. Afterward, through her brother, advertising man Amos Talshir, she was hired by an ad agency from which she got the boot in a month. Subsequently she wrote for Rehov Rashi, "but there was no need to fire me from there because the paper closed down before they could do it." From there she moved to Haaretz and wrote for the magazine until she was asked to leave by the paper's editor at the time, Hanoch Marmari, who wasn't satisfied with her performance as a reporter. This is the same Marmari who asked her to collect her articles on cancer into a book (the articles originally appeared in the second section of the paper in the summer of 2005; she wrote another three pieces especially for the book). After leaving Haaretz she went to the Tel Aviv weekly Ha'ir and from there to the daily Maariv, during the Maxwell period, "and I was fired by them, too, even though I don't remember anymore by whom."

Over the past year, she has written a column about healthful food for the Hebrew "Galeria" section on Fridays (the column continues to run in this magazine - see page 27). She met her husband while working for Rehov Rashi. He was the editor of the culture section of the army magazine Bamahane and she heard about him when he wrote a letter to all her colleagues in all the papers announcing that he had been appointed to the post and asking everyone for their cooperation ("It was very arrogant and you can imagine what kind of impression it made"). However, the first time she saw him was on a bus. "One day I was on the number 63 bus with Tami Litani [now the deputy editor of Haaretz] on the way to see a movie, when I saw a guy whom I fell in love with immediately. I told Tami I had fallen in love and he told his friend that he had fallen in love with me. Afterward we saw each other in a pub and once we traveled on a bus of correspondents to see a play at Haifa Theater and we have been together ever since. That was 23 years ago. He was 19, I was 26. But the truth is that he was never really a young man."

In the new book, Talshir describes her relations with Saar, who plays the role of the responsible adult during her illness, the man who tries to reassure her with "You're exaggerating" and to anesthetize her pains with another pill. She describes the end of a romantic week in Paris, to which he decided to take her during the treatments and which was totally ruined because of her need to insist on restaurants that served organic food, at specific and exact times, contrary to the eating habits of her husband, who prefers meat at different hours.

Initially they were far from well off. They were both fired simultaneously, he from his position as deputy editor of Ha'ir, she from Haaretz. At home they already had a sick baby. Her husband invested the severance pay he received from the paper in producing live events, which at first didn't succeed, and afterward in the creation of Promarket, and with that came economic security. Twelve years ago they moved to a house that they turned into a castle in Neve Tzedek.

The question of how long it's been since she worked makes her angry and uncomfortable. "It's not correct to say that I don't work. What you want to ask is how long it's been since I don't have to do things I don't want to do in order to make a living."

Yes, how long?

"I am always doing a great many things. In general, I don't think it's right to ask a woman who is raising three children how long it's been since she worked. That is a very full job. I also managed a gallery for a long time and I taught writing. I am very rich compared to what I was as a girl, but I am very poor compared to Ofra Strauss, for example" - referring to the chair of the Strauss-Elite group, Israel's second largest food producer. "I don't think you would ask a man questions about his money."

You bet your life I would ask. That's some change, to move from the life of an unemployed couple with a baby to life in a house like this.

"I don't think money has changed my life greatly, though in the matter of 'a room of one's own,' as long as you write for a newspaper it's impossible to write books, and what I wanted most was to write books."

An interesting disease

The interview is being conducted in her study, on the second floor, a monastic and noise-insulated room. Talshir, wearing a short knit dress in turquoise, black stockings and boots, sits on a power ball which she uses for Pilates training. "The fact that you are comfortable on a chair is what's not natural," she says.

"One of the rules that I laid down in my nutrition method, too, is that if something is really good, I do it" - which is why she sips wine mixed with Perrier water. White wine is not part of the Kingston method. Once, by the way, I saw her digging into a bloody steak. "I am not a vegetarian. It's a mistake to identify organic food with vegetarianism. I hardly ever eat meat, but that has nothing to do with the organic approach; it's because the idea of eating animals slightly revolts me. But I prefer a bloody steak to Tivall [an Israeli company that makes meat-substitute products], on condition that it's not from frozen meat. In my view the most unhealthy thing is Tivall."

Talshir says that she walks on the seashore every day for an hour and a half. "I very much recommend the ultimate diet, which I got to know about thanks to the cancer. I don't think I would have adopted this diet if I hadn't been sure that I was hearing the beating of the wings of his exaltedness the Angel of Death. There are things that you only do if you're really afraid. Before I got sick I was very much afraid, because cancer was in the air. Now I am acquainted with it and I am less afraid of it than most people, but I don't think I am immune to it. During the journey of 'extras' that I took during the disease I became very friendly with it. Everyone gets sick with the disease that is appropriate to him."

Why is cancer appropriate to you?

"Cancer is a very interesting disease, because it forces you to cope with so many things in your life and with so many choices, because nothing is self-evident: you have to decide about each thing and take responsibility. There are no two people who are sick with exactly the same cancer, so there is nothing to learn from me. For me, the probing and the learning were very appropriate. It's a disease which from the moment of discovery until you are released from the torture chambers takes about a year, and during that whole period you have to think and make decisions, such as whether to take radiation or not or whether to have a mastectomy or not."

Did you have a mastectomy?

"No. I happened to get sick at a time when that was not usually done. It's all a matter of trends. There are periods when they cut and periods when they don't, and the considerations are not necessarily medical. The only people who are allowed to be wrong so much in our culture are doctors and weather forecasters. What's amazing about medicine is that the most atheistic people are the biggest believers in medicine. They absolutely pray to the physicians and bring them gifts as though they were priests. People in hospitals laugh at religious people who want to consult with a rabbi, whereas we fall at the feet of the physician in total adoration."

Was it the doctors who recommended that you change your diet?

"No way. In the period when I was sick, to ask a doctor if there was a connection between what I ate and cancer would have been a joke. The doctor would laugh right in your face. I believe that there is a continuum of environment and heredity in everything and I think that we are living in a very toxic age."

Total devotion

People don't actually like to talk about cancer, hence the book's title - "That Disease." That is how the disease was referred to for generations, for fear that anyone who uttered the explicit name was liable to contract it. The publication of the newspaper column was also not self-evident.

"The cancer started in February 2001. I have been writing all my life and on my computer I had a file called 'Cancer.' Yoni, like every man who loves his wife, thought that my take on things was special and that I should turn the material I had accumulated into something publishable. So after I got better I wrote some pieces and took them to Tami Litani, who liked them very much. But no one in the paper wanted to publish them in his section, and it took a long time before one of the editors, Rami Rotholtz, decided to publish them in Section B, day after day, for a month."

Why was it important for you to publish the pieces?

"Because there are a few things in life where I thought I could be beneficial. For example, my eldest daughter has a learning disability and I accumulated a great deal of material about learning disabilities. I asked her if I could write about it, but she said no. In regard to the cancer, my feeling was that it would have been good if a book like this had existed when I got sick. The reactions to the columns in the paper were surprising in their intensity. There were a great many reactions. Some bad ones, too. Some doctors called to shout at me, but on the other hand a lot of people called and wrote to encourage me. I thought it was a completely esoteric column, but the fact is that every local paper now has a column about cancer."

So you made cancer fashionable? You invented a trend?

"Maybe a trend of personal writing about cancer. The cancer is described in the book through my relations with my husband and through my relations with my children. It's impossible to write about cancer without getting into these things. It's a period when your urine is purple and your hair falls out. I shifted hair from side to side in the Olmert style. I had a terrible odor from the drugs. Sometimes I would go back into a room I had come out of earlier and I would choke from the stench, a stench like a decomposed skunk. When you make pipi in blue, you are in a different place from where you usually are. To understand not to take it for granted that you have breasts is to be in a different place. Now I am in a place where I am grateful every day that I have breasts."

Did you have to almost lose them in order to fall in love with them?

"Yes. In general I believe in reincarnation and I am apparently in the first incarnation. I had to be in a situation where my breasts were almost taken from me in order to love them, and my mother had to be taken from me for me to understand how much I could not allow myself to lose my father, too, and I had to have my eldest daughter fall ill with a stroke 10 days after she was born in order to be wild about my children."

I get the impression that it's an educational principle for you to become a doormat for your children.

"I always give myself totally. Today I think that the fact that Dana was almost taken from me at the age of 10 days made me believe that I had to be with the children every minute. Until Talia was 5 I read only books about children, I watched only children's television programs and I played only with children's games. I reached a stage where if anyone did upchi [sneezed], I would sing to him "La, la, la upchi." I live in a milieu in which my girlfriends gave birth at age 40, and from their point of view I became a very boring person; the only people who remained my friends did so only because they remembered that things used to be different.

"Unfortunately, this is a subject that is not talked about: the tremendous change that occurs when you become a mother. Because every woman believes she will remain the same woman after having children. I often felt that my husband was jealous of my love for the children. But that's the way it is. This loving of children is a totally biological thing. I saw that everyone was laughing at me and getting bored with me and that I was getting on everyone's nerves. But as with falling in love, when you also become very boring and people laugh at you and you talk about the same thing all the time, then too you don't care if people are laughing at you. I just enjoyed it: it was my second and third and fourth childhood. All the girls would be in a state of depression after giving birth and I would be on a high. All three times that I gave birth I was released after one day because they couldn't stand it that I was in the infants' room all the time."

Do you miss the period when the kids were little?

"No, because I experienced it to the hilt."

How did the cancer affect the children?

"I told the three of them everything immediately. They saw me in very unpleasant situations, but there wasn't a day when I didn't get out of bed. I tried to maintain a regular daily schedule, but they saw me crying and throwing up. I don't know whether it's right to tell the children or keep it a secret from them. For me it was more right to tell them."

Did you get a lot of advice when your illness became known?

"From the moment you fall ill, the whole world gives you advice. I went to a psychologist, but I saw that he was more afraid of the cancer than I was and wasn't capable of talking, for fright. People also heap books on you and it's not polite not to read the books or listen to the advice. Everyone also know stories about people who recovered and stories about people who can really help. There are a great many charlatans who offer help to cancer patients. I went to see a hundred charlatans at least. I tried grass juice, crystals, spiritual teachers, readers of all kinds of things, don't ask what. By the way, the fact that they are charlatans doesn't invalidate them in my view. They are still doing holy work by being willing to meet so many sick people.

"And then I got to Eli Strauss, who with simplicity and logic did it for me. He taught me the Kingston method. He didn't promise anything; all he did was give me a printed page with the principles of the method. I said to myself: Because I go with the flow with everything and get these terrible treatments which may or may not be helping me, what's more reasonable than to pamper my body a little? It's worth trying proper nutrition. And because the transition to right nutrition produces results so quickly, I stayed with it.

"When I wrote the column about organic food, a lot of people told me that I was an extremist. But to reach the middle way you have to pass through extremisms. I have been on the middle way for a long time, because everything is natural for me now. It's natural for me to eat good food. It seems to me unnatural to give a child Bisli [a popular Israeli salty snack]. By the same token you can give him Bonzo [dog food]. There are things that are contrary to nature. Just as you don't spill Coke into a car engine, you don't spill Tivall into the stomach. Very simple.

"Now it's also a lot easier for me, because the organic food trend is sweeping the world. Every restaurant will serve you sliced vegetables with raw tehina. Everywhere you go there is quinoa or brown rice with something. But I remember in December 2005, when I started to write about organic food, it was still very esoteric. Yet somehow it became very trendy, to the point where I started to ask myself if I wasn't just documenting a global phenomenon."

In her beautiful kitchen she cooks things like millet, buckwheat (kasha) and of course quinoa. She arranges meetings outside the house in an organic restaurant or at times that do not clash with her singular eating hours. Every Shabbat she travels to growers of organic vegetables and every Sunday she cooks. The transition to organic food also means enslavement to the kitchen. "My freezer is empty. I also don't use a microwave. That means that every time I prepare something eat - and I eat a lot - there are pots and frying pans to wash afterward."

Is it a type of asceticism?

"On the contrary. We live in a very hedonistic age and much of the turn to organic food derives from that hedonism. It doesn't come from a place of suffering but from a desire to pamper and preserve the body. The people who eat like me, if they are committing some sin, it's the sin of self-love."

"Why me?" is the title of the book's last chapter. "Why me?" is the question asked by everyone who is admitted against his will to the cancer club. Talshir doesn't have an answer to this question. "I searched until I was tired but I didn't find the answer. My life is a banal collection of unimportant details - nothing sets me apart. I didn't dive into the [polluted] Kishon, I didn't approach the atomic reactor. A phlegmatic temperament and a dull combination of circumstances made my biography as plain as possible." W