Ronit Feiller remembers the day her 2-year-old was diagnosed with cancer.
Her daughter had a persistent cough that wouldn’t go away for a few weeks, so she took her to the doctor. When the doctor saw her, he became alarmed at the size of her abdomen.
“We were living with it so it didn’t strike us as out of the ordinary. We thought is was a cute toddler belly.”
The doctor sent Ronit to the emergency room, where her daughter received a diagnosis within hours. It was Wilms, a pediatric kidney cancer caused when some of the fetal tissue destined to form into kidneys keeps expanding after birth. It turns out her daughter had been coughing because the tumor had grown so large it was pressing on her diaphragm.
Within 24 hours, doctors at Rehovot’s Kaplan Hospital had removed the child’s kidney. This was followed by eight months of chemotherapy. Gefen, now 5, is in full remission. During their ordeal, her mother Ronit, who made aliyah to Israel from the United States at age 10, met another immigrant from the United States, Shira Frimer, who told her about Kids Kicking Cancer, a martial arts program for kids with cancer and other serious diseases.
Feiller got all three of her kids involved in the program as a way to cope with the aftermath of the disease. On Tuesday, they performed punches and breathing on stage before hundreds at the Tandem Capital Global Markets Conference at Tel Aviv’s Hilton Hotel.
“When I am sad or don’t have strength I do the [breathing techniques],” the 5-year-old cancer survivor told The Times of Israel.
“It makes us feel strong,” said her 11-year-old sister.
From Detroit to Israel
Kids Kicking Cancer was started by Detroit-based Rabbi Elimelech Goldberg, a black belt in Choi Kwang Do and Clinical Assistant Professor at the Department of Pediatrics, Wayne State School of Medicine.
Goldberg lost his eldest child to leukemia at the age of 2, and wanted to help other children with the disease. He realized that martial arts could help kids cope with pain as well as feel less passive and helpless. In the 15 years since he founded the program, it has expanded to more than 20 hospitals in North America, 15 in Italy and five in Israel. In 2014, Rabbi Goldberg was named one of ten “CNN heroes.”
In Israel, where the program launched three years ago, Goldberg enlisted Shira Frimer, a 37-year-old widow who lost her husband to cancer at the age of 24 and has written a superhero graphic novel, Nistar, for children with the disease. Frimer became the program’s project coordinator.
Meanwhile, Danny Hakim, an Australian-born Israeli who is a philanthropist and two-time world karate silver medalist, signed up as chairman. Fifteen years ago, Hakim founded Budo for Peace, an organization that promotes coexistence in Israel through martial arts. When he learned about Kids Kicking Cancer, he decided to bring it under the umbrella of Budo for Peace, which is funded by Bank Hapoalim and a number of private foundations.
“Our pool of instructors are Haredi, Jewish and Arab,” Hakim told The Times of Israel. “Kids with cancer come from all backgrounds. So the program is a showcase for coexistence.”
Despite the word “cancer” in the program’s name, the program helps children with any chronic or life-threatening illness, says Frimer. Volunteer instructors usually have a black belt in their martial art as well some teaching experience. They then go through a ten-hour course on how to instruct the children at hospitals and outpatient clinics.
Some parents are wary at first about their sick children practicing martial arts, says Hakim, but the kids don’t actually perform moves on each other. Instead, they punch and kick pads, as well as learn a stress-relieving breathing technique trademarked by Kids Kicking Cancer and known as the Breath Brake. In fact, any kid who can move their arms can participate in the sessions.
“We’ve given classes at Alyn Hospital, where some of the kids have severe disabilities,” Harvey Belik, the program’s chairman of the medical board of advisers, said.
“They get in a uniform and learn to breathe. They feel strong instead of feeling passive and pain.”
Kids Kicking Cancer is working on studies to prove the medical efficacy of martial arts for hospitalized children. So far, a study by Martin H. Bluth et al at Wayne State University revealed an up to 30 percent reduction in pain among children who participated in Kids Kicking Cancer sessions. The goal is also to examine how the program affects depression, time spent out of bed, recovery time and other indicators.
Once these studies are complete, says Hakim, they want to export Kids Kicking Cancer to the world as an Israeli brand.
Fighting with death
The good news about childhood cancer is that 90 percent survive for a year and close to 80 percent of kids survive for 10 years after diagnosis. For those children who are not expected to survive, Kids Kicking Cancer holds a special ceremony in the hospital where the child receives a black belt and master teacher title about a week or two before they die.
“They get up in front of their friends and family,” says Hakim, “and they receive this honor.”
Hakim says the reason he thinks martial arts, as opposed to any other sport, is an important intervention for kids with serious illness is that “it’s about how to deal with death. If you look at the Japanese tradition of samurai, at the very peak of their power and strength they are ready to die. These kids are contemplating dying or fighting off death.”
Hakim says that martial arts help you build up your mind so that you can deal with terrifying thoughts like these.
“It’s a kind of mental perseverance. These kids have extreme pain. Martial arts give them strength, and at the same time the instructors learn from them.”