“I’m not answering that!” calls out Miri Ziv, director general of the Israel Cancer Association (ICA), when told that yet another head of an organization must speak with her. Ziv, of course, picks up the telephone.
She is sitting at her desk at ICA headquarters in Givatayim, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Piles of papers, newspaper clippings, research documents and advertising material fill her office.
A self-proclaimed workaholic, Ziv has been the face of Israel’s cancer community since 1992 — the year her 21-year-old son, Oren, died from melanoma.
In a country that lacks a National Cancer Institute, and where the ICA is the watchdog, Ziv is “the” source for cancer news, breakthroughs and research.
“I was born when the Israel Cancer Association was created in 1952. I am not a physician but I know a lot about cancer control,” she says.
Even before cancer struck her personally — her son and brother succumbed to the illness — Ziv made it clear that she wanted to help in the fight against one of the world’s most deadly diseases.
She has been a part of the Israel Cancer Association’s landscape for nearly 30 years.
In 1982, she began her career as a professional educator. With a master’s degree in medical sociology, she froze her doctoral dissertation when her son was diagnosed with cancer.
Instead, she says wryly, “I have a PhD of life.”
Awareness, awareness, awareness
Raising awareness of cancer is one of Ziv’s main goals. After all, experts agree that knowledge of the deadly disease is the key to combating it.
She is active both locally and internationally in initiating and implementing cancer control projects.
Ziv is credited with starting the National Mammography Screening Program in Israel, Skin Cancer Awareness Month and countless other programs to raise awareness and promote early detection.
She recently returned from New York where she represented Israel at the United Nations Summit on Non-Communicable Diseases.
“We deal with prevention. Our aim is to reduce cancer morbidity and mortality. Without inventing anything new and just using what we have, people can reduce the likelihood of cancer by 50 percent,” Ziv tells ISRAEL21c.
“Stop smoking, avoid obesity, be active, be sun-smart and avoid alcohol consumption. Add to these the recommended screening tests and we can prevent more than 60% of cancer death rates.”
Ziv breathes facts and figures related to cancer. She’s up at four in the morning and likes to start her day with a glass of water and lemon juice. Then she catches up on the latest cancer-related articles, publications and documents she didn’t have time to read the day before at the office.
She leaves her home in Yavne — a small city 15 miles south of Tel Aviv — at around 8am and won’t return home before 8pm. Ziv notes that it is fortunate that her husband, Joseph, a retired IDF helicopter pilot who today works for Veolia Environnement, a world leader in environmental services, is also a workaholic.
She is a woman of many hats. In addition to her role at the ICA, she is also a member of the Israel National Health Committee, the Israel National Council of Oncology, the National Council of Health Promotion as well as a national representative of the European Breast Cancer Coalition. This year she was elected as Global Cancer Ambassador by the American Cancer Society.
“I have a lot of meetings,” she says.
Yet for someone who deals with bleak aspects of this difficult disease around-the-clock, Ziv is one of the more jovial people you’re likely to meet.
It’s not surprising that the Israeli Association of Public Relations recently named Ziv “best CEO in Israel” for her innovative and creative activities.
Back in her office, she takes out a thermos filled with herbal tea. Ziv explains that she is so busy during her day that if she doesn’t have time to eat, at least her tea will keep her hydrated.
No politics, please
Outside her office is a bulletin board with lists of what’s happening at the association’s headquarters. Ziv runs her finger down the directory of meetings scheduled for the month. On average, she says, there are 110 workshops every month for patients and professionals.
There are 70 ICA branches across the country. The head office is a bustling place with hundreds of people coming and going at all times. Ziv’s office shares a floor with the information team, those responsible for answering the ICA hotline and making sure the website (in English, Hebrew, Russian and Arabic) is always updated.
Asked how many calls they field each day, one of the volunteers says: “We drink the same cup of coffee from morning till 4pm”
With some 28,000 Israelis diagnosed with cancer annually and about 10,000 dying from cancer every year, Ziv and her team are kept busy.
But perhaps the most difficult aspect of her job, she says, is fundraising.
“Our budget relies on donations. We don’t get any money from the government and we don’t want any because we don’t want political influences. But it’s hard to raise the whole budget of $12-15 million,” she says. The ICA’s overhead is less than 10%.
“It’s amazing how little money the government gives to research,” says Ziv. “We have some of the best scientists; look at our Nobel laureates.”
Downstairs from her office is the Sir Charles Clore Hostel — a home away from home for cancer patients living far from the oncology institutes in the central region of Israel.
Despite the newspaper clippings citing certain successes and the colorful ad campaign posters on the walls of the corridors, there’s no masking why the Israel Cancer Association exists.
“You can’t work here unless you know the work is important,” says Ziv. “It’s difficult to do what we do. That’s why our volunteers work with the commitment as if they were paid staff, and the staff works with such devotion as if they were volunteers. Together we work against the disease and for the patients.”
Cancer in Israel – the statistics
- In Israel, cancer is the No. 1 cause of death.
- There are some 200,000 patients/survivors in Israel today.
- Israeli hospitals provide cutting-edge treatment for cancer, including targeted therapies for specific types of tumors based on in-house and international research.
- Israel is a world leader in breast cancer survival rates and research.
- Israel has 56 mammography screening institutes and leads the world in mammography compliance rates, according to a World Health Organization survey.
- Israel was one of the first 10 countries to pass a law prohibiting smoking in public places.