As women anywhere in the world, women in Palestine are affected by cancer. But their wounds reach way beyond the physical and psychological damage caused by the disease, as often they find themselves abandoned by the ones closest to them.
“No one will marry you. You will live the rest of your life alone, even though you are still young. Your daughters will not find anyone to marry them when grown up.” Like bullets, these words pierced the ears of 43-year-old Ansaf Ismail in Gaza, when people found out she had cancer in December 2014.
“The first person who left me with my ordeal, as soon as he learnt of my illness, was my husband,” said Ismail. “My mother was the warm embrace that enabled me to regain my strength and to complete my treatment after I had stopped chemotherapy, because of its psychological and physical cruelty.”
Ismael’s story is one of the 3,800 cases recorded during the past five years, according to the latest data issued by the breast cancer awareness Pink October campaign.
Cancer is the first cause of death for Palestinian women, but the cure rate reaches 90% in the case of early detection, while 70% of breast cancer cases is discovered by monthly self-examination.
“Despite my early detection of a malignant tumor in my breast, the treatment protocol required mastectomy,” said Ismael. “The operation was successful and afterwards I was keen to have a periodic review every six months.”
“My suffering was worse than normal, as my treatment took place during the Corona pandemic,” she added. “Hospitals in Gaza only received emergency cases, especially the Al-Rantisi Hospital oncology ward.”
The pandemic imposed extra challenges on women with cancer in Gaza, as a result of an acute shortage in medicine, lack of treatments and, due to lack of a specialized hospital in Gaza, the fear for traveling to hospitals in Jerusalem or occupied West Bank during the quarantine.
“The hormonal treatment normally takes five years,” said Ismael. “But the Corona pandemic and the siege imposed on Gaza deprived me of receiving the Zoladex injection for four months in a row. This led to an imbalance in my treatment and increased my pain.”
“I was very confused as to who to turn to and where to conduct my tests and receive my treatment, which was suspended by the oncology ward of the Al-Rantisi Hospital at the height of the corona crisis,” she continued, noting she had to buy a Zoladex dose for 650 shekels ($200) at her own expense, even though she does not have an income. She is a volunteer at the Aid and Hope Program for Cancer Patient Care.
With 316 cases of breast cancer diagnosed in 2019, the oncology wards of Gaza’s hospitals have insufficient capacity. Having local services will contribute to preventing 75% of cancer patients from having to leave the Gaza Strip.
Cancer and War
Ismael confirmed that the most difficult stage, physically and mentally, were the 11 days of the fourth Israeli war on Gaza, which started on May 10, 2021. The indiscriminate bombing disrupted her treatment.
“The biggest tragedy was the lack of medical staff at the Al-Rantissi Hospital, except for critical cases,” she said. “Even the Aid and Hope Foundation, which was cooperating with us to send medicine during the war, was paralyzed, as every moving object was a legitimate target for Israeli planes.”
She remained silent for a moment, before recalling how the war aggravated her pain. She was forced to vacate her home in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood, running, out of fear for Israeli missiles, while carrying her two daughters, although the doctors had recommended her not to carry anything heavy for five years. But such it is the call of motherhood …
“The experience of illness made me stronger and more solid,” said Ismael. “After that everything became easy. I learnt how to love and take care of myself.”
In addition to the challenges imposed by the conditions in Gaza on cancer patients, the director of the Aid and Hope Foundation, Iman Shanan, said in an interview that Palestinian women get cancer twice, once through the body, and once through the partner, who abandons his wife. The latter is a fate that nearly 75 percent of women with cancer have to face.
If a man suffers from cancer, he receives help of the family council, while the woman becomes a burden, especially in case of weak financial circumstances.
Women remain among the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups in society, especially when facing wars and health crises, which is why they require extra moral and financial support.