Israeli cancer patient in final push to raise money for specialized treatment in NY

Naor Blankleder, 29, thought he had beat bone cancer but now it has spread to his lungs and his best chance to survive lies with doctors and researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Naor Blankleder is fighting for his life following the metastasis of osteosarcoma in his knee to his lung. (Courtesy)
Naor Blankleder is fighting for his life following the metastasis of osteosarcoma in his knee to his lung. (Courtesy)

For more than a year, Naor Blankleder battled an aggressive bone cancer in his knee called osteosarcoma. He underwent chemotherapy, immunotherapy and a total knee replacement.

In June, the 29-year-old from Tel Aviv, who was deemed by then to be cancer-free, celebrated by proposing to his girlfriend, Shir Abrahami.

“I practiced two to three hours a day for months in physiotherapy so that I could get down on one knee to propose to her. I wanted to give her the moment of her life, that moment of happiness and joy without any concern about the future. I was promising that we were going to move forward together and have a healthy and happy life,” Blankleder said.

Not long after, Blankleder got the devastating news that the disease had returned. A routine follow-up scan revealed a five-centimeter (two-inch) tumor in his left lung. His doctors at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv immediately started him on chemotherapy but also told him that he stood the best chance if he received treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City, one of the top cancer centers in the United States.

Moving to New York indefinitely and paying for advanced treatment was beyond Blankleder and his family’s means, so his friends and work colleagues immediately took it upon themselves to help. Together with the Lehoshit Yad (Reaching Out A Hand) organization, they began a crowdfunding effort.

Thus far the campaign has raised more than $563,000, nearly 70 percent of its $805,000 goal. Blankleder told The Times of Israel that he is extremely grateful for all the support, and hopes that most or all of the required funds will come in by the time he flies with his fiancée and at least one of his parents to New York on August 22.

Blankleder reported that the campaign has spread quickly via social media. Friends from his military service in the combat photography unit of the IDF Spokesperson’s Office, former classmates from Tel Aviv University, and colleagues from his communications and creative work at the McCann advertising company all stepped up to either donate money or time. Some helped make several professional fundraising videos, including one that highlights Blankleder’s optimism and good humor despite the ordeal he faces.

Dr. Michelle Ghert. (Courtesy)

In that video, Blankleder — who comes across as a natural comedic actor — shares some of the absurd things that he never thought would happen, but are now part of his life as a cancer patient. For instance, despite not being pregnant, he has to get up to urinate six times a night and has inexplainable cravings for foods like lychees with salt, fried olives, and peanut butter on absolutely everything. He also never imagined himself teaching elderly fellow patients how to roll marijuana joints.

According to Dr. Michelle Ghert, a professor of orthopedic surgery affiliated with McMaster University in Canada and the University of Maryland, osteosarcoma is an uncommon cancer that is usually diagnosed in teenagers. A third of osteosarcoma patients will suffer a relapse, with 95% of those cases involving metastases in the lungs. As with Blankleder, the recurrence usually happens within the first two years after the initial cure. (Full disclosure: Ghert, a sarcoma specialist, is this writer’s sister.)

“That is the pattern we see. As far as we know, it is the same exact cancer, but this time in the lungs. This is because as the blood goes through the heart and lungs to get oxygenated, the [leftover cancer] cells get caught in the tiny vessels in the lungs and start to grow. It’s a really good environment for them to live in because there’s oxygen there. It’s fertile grounds for them,” said Ghert, who is not involved in Blankleder’s care.

Naor Blankleder with his fiancée Shir Abrahami. (Courtesy)

In her experience, if there is only one nodule in the lungs, it is removed surgically. However, if there are many of them, or if the patient cannot tolerate surgery, second-line chemotherapy can be tried. These are “second choice” drugs, but they must be used because the first-line chemotherapy drugs that a patient initially received cannot be used again.

“The body can’t tolerate the use of the first-line drugs, and using them again has been shown not to work,” Ghert explained.

Ghert, who is the principal investigator for PARITY, the first-ever multi-center, international, prospective randomized trial in the field of orthopedic oncology, said that there are ongoing clinical trials in biologics and immunotherapy for soft tissue sarcomas, but not for bone sarcomas.

“But maybe there is some relevant research and trial with biologics or immunotherapy going on at Memorial Sloan Kettering that would be appropriate for the patient from Israel,” she said.

Blankleder told The Times of Israel that he and his Israeli doctors believe that MSKCC has physicians and surgeons with the right knowledge and experience to offer him the best treatment.

“I am afraid of having to undergo surgery, especially after how traumatized I was by my knee operation. But I do know that there will be surgery involved, probably the removal of a large part of my lung. Given the vast experience that MSKCC has with this, I am sure we will have the best surgeon,” Blankleder said.

Naor Blankleder practiced bending down on one knee for months in physiotherapy so he would be able to propose marriage ‘properly’ to his girlfriend Shir Abrahami. (Courtesy)

“As for the rest of the treatment regimen, that has not been determined. It’s a complicated situation and there is a lot of uncertainty. I hope we will know everything soon, but I do know that there are treatments and drugs in the US that are not available here in Israel,” he said.

According to Ghert, there are cases of survival and even long-term survival after metastasis of osteosarcoma.

“That’s why you go for it. If a person is young and [generally] healthy then you throw whatever available treatments there are at them, because they may actually work,” she said.

Blankleder said he plans to be one of the success stories. His future involves marrying his fiancée Shir, but in the meantime, they are both focused on the present.

“When you have cancer there is only the present and what you have to do to get through it. We are going to do whatever it takes, he said.

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