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Optimism is My Opium

Ilan Kreisman ... an irrepressible passion for life

We all need a dose of Ilan Kreisman. When Ilan asked me to interview him, I acceded, because he has been fighting a rare form of renal cancer for the past twelve years.

I met Ilan on a Friday, the 13th day of the month, and any suspicions I may have harbored regarding the date were rapidly swept aside as, over the ensuing hours, he related his story that not only revealed a mind filled with inspiring and provocative thoughts, but also a man with surprising fortitude, faith and an irrepressible passion for life.

I have known Ilan since he was a teenager when he was the "dark room boy" and I was the radiographer at a private clinic in Jerusalem. Even then I was struck by his calm manner and composure, his dignity, his stature and indeed, his graciousness. I saw him intermittently over the years, always the same gentle man, and a pleasure to meet.

Initially, I learnt of his youth, spent mostly abroad, as his father was in the Foreign Office. His six years in Washington DC "was quite an experience, like falling in love with the wrong person for the first time". He was captivated by all the material benefits that the United States had to offer, but realized that it was temporary. While playing soccer in school, Ilan took the position of goal keeper. "Tending goal is like tending home. While other players ran off, I stayed at base. I preferred to be close to home. I sought the simplest and safest route." Upon his return to Jerusalem, Ilan had difficulty assimilating and was unhappy at school, noting that "adolescence did not give me the tools to develop as one should or can. I felt like a plane on the runway, never taking off." It was during his military service that he felt he had "started to grasp life much more intimately". After demobilization, he travelled through Europe - "a safe kind of trip, no real challenges, I was still in the cocoon stage".

Ilan considered studying psychology. "Looking back, psychology deals with treatment, and that must have been the first indication that something was not in place, although I was unaware of it at the time." He finally decided to study architecture "because it builds homes for others and something about pleasing others related to my youth. I was always the good child, compliant and submissive, the golden boy." But Ilan was never a conventional architect, preferring rather to dabble in unique "Ilanesque" designs of jewelry and furniture.

After returning from Paris where he spent some years studying for his MA, he was invited by a lawyer - "who saw my work and sensed something about me that would fit" - to participate in an educators' course at the Center for Victims of Violent Sexual Abuse and Rape in Tel Aviv. The experience had a huge impact on him and his future as it demanded strong compassion, sensitivity, creativity and understanding. "Later, that experience gave me the tools to accept my disease rather than be a victim."

After years spent in Paris, some difficult, some easier, meeting other designers from around the world, Ilan taught "made-to-fit" workshops about "Emotional Landscapes of Function" which aptly drew on his distinctive style and extraordinary philosophy in solving life's dilemmas. His designs have been exhibited in the United States, France and Israel, including one entitled "Skin: Surface and Structure in Contemporary Design".

In 2002 Ilan first realized that something was amiss when he noticed blood in his urine which he thought was "perhaps a result of the wine I had drunk at dinner". After undergoing a barrage of tests, none of which were conclusive, doctors initially suggested the possibility of a parasite within a kidney that was causing an infection. However, sent for advanced testing at a research center, Ilan received the bitter news that he had developed a belligerent and rare form of cancer called Collecting Duct Carcinoma, otherwise known as "Bellini's Tumor". This potentially fatal malignancy was so rare that there were no therapeutic protocols available other than surgery to remove the kidney, followed by aggressive chemotherapy, "which, in my case, didn't work". By 2004 Ilan required a second operation to treat metastases that had spread to his lymphatic system. He returned to Israel and underwent a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection by a surgeon, "a man I treasure", whose father had operated on his grandmother many years before. Ilan has had a total of six operations to remove secondary tumors, mostly in the throat and chest areas, accompanied by more chemotherapy and medications which were often experimental but always debilitating.

He undergoes PET scans every 3-4 months - "a countless number until now – I am a frequent flyer on PETs", and regular ongoing check-ups with his oncologist at Assaf Harofe Hospital. His latest PET scan was "pitch dark. Nothing was right. I faced a moment of truth. Either I push ahead now and make a difference, or will it be too much for my body to handle. My body has been able to contain the tumors way beyond all expectation, yet now I face a new tumor on my spine". Doctors doubled the dosage and now await developments.

In the face of extreme adversity, Ilan has never lost his focus and has met challenge after challenge with intense internalization and reflection, and guidance by three specialized practitioners: one who deals with stones and crystals, the second a healer and medium and the third, a doctor of Kinesiology. "I function a lot through intuition and science and even though the issue of death should be my highest concern, I prefer to seek my authentic self." Ilan sees his life as a whirlpool from which he must emerge. He acknowledges that "my health can only come from me. I am the curer of my illness, and to do that I need to activate something internally to fight the cancer. There can be no compromise." Working with his therapists, who allow him to heal through them, Ilan deals with deep emotions, confronts realities and tries to overcome the disease through experience and understanding.

"I always dealt with life through the emotions of my family, my students and my friends. While I didn't choose psychology, I nonetheless identified myself as a combination of philosopher, psychologist, poet, artist and autistic soul, where I was able to take something askew and transform it into an image of beauty. In the most profound sense, I created something from nothing. But I don't look at the world or people through emotional eyes any longer, rather through eyes that can inspire. This has been a liberation which I liken to a tsunami passing through my life, because I thought my role was to help people emotionally." Ilan notes that the various courses he teaches illustrate his unique philosophy through fanciful titles such as "Manscape" and "Enter the Forest".

Helping to confront his cancer, Ilan returned to his roots. He changed his name to the family's original Kreisman*. "My father Hebraicized his name in Israel, but a family name goes beyond a family unit. It relates to ancestors and heritage. 'Kreis' means circle, so I am a man of the circle. My name adds another dimension to my life."

He also sought deeper study and acceptance of Judaism as a source of considerable spiritual strength and meaning. He studies regularly at a Beit Midrash in Tel Aviv and with scholars in Bnei Brak. These activities have helped him deal with issues such as reason, justice and faith and have had a significant impact on his lifestyle.

Ilan firmly believes he will eventually win the battle. "If I can bring knowledge to people, and motivate and guide them, then I will have found the path to my healing. I am not static. I still have a mission in life of things to do and places to go. I want to start a new page, break the cycle of the past and enter another sphere on a higher and broader scale. I want to inspire more and start writing. I still have many lines of defense: medicine, healers, metaphysical, spiritual, creativity and resourcefulness. In short, I am marching forward because optimism is my opium."

And indeed, Ilan's optimism is cheering, heartening and humbling all at the same time.

Sadly, Ilan lost his valiant fight on September 23,2017

* Ilan's surname was previously Korren. 



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