Victoria Yavelsky, left, with her advisor Prof. Marina Wolfson: “I couldn’t imagine myself in any other profession.” (Photo: BGU)One day, award-winning Israeli scientist Victoria Yavelsky was asked to explain ovarian cancer to a woman who had just learned that she was sick.

After she received the explanation, the woman told her “Look, I’m not sure that I understand every detail that you are telling me but I am going to tell you that I am willing to do anything, anything, everything I can to get better.”

Two days later, when Yavelsky was on a routine visit to the hospital, she went and checked on the condition of the woman who had touched her heart. “She died yesterday,” the nurse said.

“That woman’s face is in front of me,” said Yavelsky, “Every single morning as I hurry to the laboratory.”

And she does hurry there each morning. Each day, 35-year old Yavelsky, a doctoral student, spends 12 intensive hours in her molecular biology lab at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, surrounded by jars filled with cancerous ovaries.

Each day, except on Sunday, surgery day.

On those days, Yavelsky hurries to the hospital, in her hand a jar in order to get straight from an anesthetized woman on the operating table, the ovary full of a terrible disease. And in a moment with the warm ovary in the jar, she rushes back to the lab, to preserve it in the proper liquids, to measure, examine, and add the results to the research whose goal is early diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer, the sixth most common cancer, and one of the most violent and cruelest forms of cancer.

Her hard work has paid off. Yavelsky was responsible for a major breakthrough in early detection of the disease, working together with other BGU scientists in a research project entitled “New Strategy in Diagnosis and Treatment of Ovarian Cancer.”

For her achievement, she was presented a research grant of $20,000.

Yavelsky’s fellowship is part of the L’Oreal cosmetic company’s “For Women in Science” program. The fellowships are designed to “benefit women working in doctoral and post-doctoral research who have already distinguished themselves by their talent and commitment.”

Yavelsky’s award-winning research focused on methods of early detection and treatment of ovarian cancer. In her work, Yavelsky discovered that delaying the activity of the proteins involved in the growth of cancer cells can slow the spread of the disease. Ovarian cancer develops without early signs and therefore, early detection is crucial to successful treatment.

The ceremony for the presentation of the award brought her to Paris, an environment very different from her laboratory.

The morning before the ceremony, Yavelsky went to the renowned Louis Pasteur Institute and demonstrated her research to scientists from the world. She did so beside female scientists from Ramallah and Syria, all among the 15 scientists chosen for the scholarship from among thousands around the world.

That evening, at an elegant reception in the home of the UNESCO representative in Israel, in a Parisian salon with high ceilings and crystal chandeliers, speeches were given in English and French. Her teenaged son was present. “I wanted Alex to come here,” she said as she looks for her son, “so that he will understand that it pays off to work hard in life,” she laughed.

How could a 35-year-old woman with a 15-year-old son in an adopted country have such a meaningful scientific breakthrough in oncology? The answer is a fascinating tale.

In January of 1968, Victoria Yavelsky was born in Kiev in the Ukraine to a mother who was a pediatrician and a father who was a general practitioner, with a grandfather who was also a doctor. “I couldn’t imagine myself in any other profession,” she said. Her grandmother raised her, according to the instructions that her mother would leave every morning on the table.

She married on a whim at age 17, to a friend who would have his army service eased if he were married, over the objections of her parents. At the time she was frustrated after being rejected twice for medical studies at university because of a quota for Jewish students.

When she was finally accepted, she was 19 years old, newly divorced from her husband – and pregnant with Alex.

Then an event occurred which would change her life – the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Yavelsky and her mother were recruited to help their countrymen and travel to Chernobyl. For 48 hours Yavelsky, together with other doctors from all over Russia at Chernobyl and treated the residents. But they were all exposed to high levels of radiation. Both she and her baby paid a price for that exposure. During the year after he was born, little Alex was in the ICU seven times, was underweight and could barely breathe.

Doctors urged her to take the child to a better climate. Yavelsky chose to go to Israel “because I’m a Jew.” Without knowing a word of Hebrew, with no money in her pocket, 13 suitcases, and a baby who cried much of the time, she left for a country where she knew nobody.

In 1990, in the middle of the night, laden with suitcases and a small child, Yavelsky landed at the airport in Israel. She was sent first to the absorption center in Haifa and found herself in a small room with cockroaches on the wall, where she spent her first hard night in a strange country interrupted by Alex’s intense asthma attacks, which signaled that they were in an area with air pollution. With the crying baby in her arms, she told the officials at the center that she had to move. On the same day she was sent to the absorption center in Beersheva, and ultimately she found a room to rent. Sleeping on the floor because she couldn’t afford a bed, she caught pneumonia.

“It’s impossible to describe how hard the first few months were. No one could understand me and I couldn’t understand anyone, and everything was dirty and strange to me, and I didn’t have money and I didn’t speak the language and I couldn’t find where to sleep and my four years of medical study weren’t considered valid in Israel and Alex was always blue and crying. By the end of the first week I called my parents in Kiev crying and said, “I’m coming home!” she said.

But Yavelsky didn’t return. Once she had accepted the painful fact that her medical studies weren’t recognized in Israel, she decided to register for a nurse training course at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, in order to make a living. While she studied, she worked cleaning houses, cooking, and ironing.

“I remember that Alex was hungry and asked for food, and I could only give him tea because that’s all I had. There were terribly hard days, but the whole time people helped me. One day, when I didn’t have money to go home on the bus from Ashkelon to Beersheva, the head nurse said she had just gotten a scholarship of 400 shekels that she wanted to give me. Now I know that the money came out of her own pocket,” she said.

After two years of work as a nurse, after she slowly built herself a small bank account, Yavelsky registered for a master’s degree in life sciences at Ben-Gurion University. She focused on the molecular biology lab, where she was investigating an event of isolating proteins and graduated with honors. As she continued on the doctoral path she found out she was ill. The radiation that she was exposed to in Chernobyl brought her to intensive care and in the end to the operating room where she underwent a series of complex operations.

When she awoke in a situation she describes as close to death, Yavelsky decided to investigate the disease that nearly killed her. Four years ago, in the laboratory of Prof. Marina Wolfson, a cancer researcher in the School of Health Sciences, and Yavelsky’s advisor she began investigating proteins with the goal of working towards better detection and better drug therapy for ovarian and breast cancer.

As for Yavelsky herself, after undergoing surgery, therapy, and radiation, she is completely healthy and completely dedicated to her work.

(Adapted with permission from an article in Ma’ariv)