When I was a child in the second grade, a classmate of mine passed away. When we asked our teacher, who was in tears, how she died, she replied: from cancer. We didn’t understand what cancer means, so she tried to help us understand by explaining that it was like our friend drank rat poison. But when we grew up, we learned that cancer is not a rat poison, but, rather, another type of slow death.
At the age of 28, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. A mother of two children, the oldest only four years of age, I had no choice but to fight. I relied on the support of my husband, the inspiration of my mother, and the strength of my father to start the bitter treatment journey that lasted for six years, until I became a cancer survivor. I also had to challenge the traditions of my society that often undermines the well-being of cancer patients.
I met amazing women, who were also fighting cancer. Amira, Ghada, Noha, Amal, Haya, Safaa, Hanaa, Taghreed, Shefa and Amena. We were all on this journey together. It was the scalpel of the surgeons that united us. With them, I agreed to stay and fight. Together we would destroy cancer.
But it was hard to see them change. Their hair fell out. The light in their faces faded. Their bodies grew weak and slim. Due to the situation in Gaza, we often had to leave Gaza to receive treatment, which was not easy. I used to travel to Egypt through the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing to receive my treatment, but the trip was too long and very tiring to a cancer patient. At that time, I was covering the expenses of my treatment which, out of my previous knowledge, is very high; I even had to sell my house back in 2000 to be able cover my treatment expenses.
The Health Sector often did not prioritize cancer patients’ treatment enough, particularly when it came to obtaining permits for treatment outside of Gaza and travel through the Israeli-controlled Erez. I applied many permit requests to travel through Erez, but wasn’t granted all of them; many requests were denied or kept pending.
Despite the agony of being far from our homes, our families, our children for days and months, we would laugh together. We lost precious parts of our bodies, but we never lost hope. Not even for a second. We fought those who refused to support us, who seemed to want to see us defeated. And we spread love, life, and strength along the way.
Sometimes I had to depend on the Gaza Ministry of Health’s medications and treatment, because I could not obtain the medicine on my own, or get the treatment I needed outside of Gaza. What I hated the most, and totally refused, was the linkage between having cancer and dying, as if survival is not even an option. My social relationships were affected as some people only wanted to see me as a victim or subject of their pity, which I refused.
Throughout my journey, I felt and witnessed the struggle and the suffering of female cancer patients, especially those who are poor, vulnerable or uneducated. Many lacked psychological support from their families. They had no money to fight. Some were abandoned by their husbands. I was always thinking about how vulnerable we were and how much support we needed.
Years later, after I became a cancer survivor, my passion in life was revived. I wanted to provide women like me with as much help as possible. With the support of other female cancer patients, of whom we lost four, we started thinking of how to help cancer patients in Gaza, by providing them with the medication and support they needed and to fight for them.
In 2009, I established the Aid and Hope Programme for Female Cancer Patients. It is the first organization in Gaza that aims to assist female cancer patients, especially ones with little or no income, through facilitating their treatment and travel, providing psychosocial support and building their life-skills and leadership capacity.
In the past 10 years, we have managed to provide 2,700 female cancer patients with services, such as medication, which is often difficult to obtain in Gaza, due to import restrictions, lack of funding and other challenges; psychosocial support; physiotherapy; and recreational activities. When we first opened the programme, we had 50 patients. Now, due to the great number of patients, we are no longer able to involve all of them in all our services, due to lack of funding.
Despite the success achieved, I have faced many challenges, including the negative perception of society towards me as a breast cancer survivor and as an activist encouraging women to undergo early detection checks for breast cancer. Even some official bodies, who should be advocating the interests of female cancer patients, were unwilling to support me.
People often consider talking about breast cancer shameful, or assume that female patients will die from it, regardless of the treatment they receive. But I fight with all that I have to support them. And I fight with international and local donors to make sure that treatment of female cancer patients is on their funding agendas.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, my children were only 3 and 4 years old. Now they are 23 and 24 years old. My dream was to be able to see them grow up and graduate from their universities, and I achieved it; both of them have graduated in the meantime. My dream now is to keep helping female cancer patients receive the support they need.