“Breast cancer will not wait or end because of coronavirus”

Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) and our partners are once again marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, but this year in the new context of a COVID-19 pandemic that adds a layer of additional challenge to the accessibility and availability of diagnosis, treatment and care for the disease.

In Lebanon, Nurse Kafa, who works with our local partner organisation Naba’a, has been helping to coordinate Breast Cancer Awareness Month activities in the Palestinian refugee camps of Ein el Helweh and Rashidyeh. Kafa explained to MAP what she and her team have been up to this month, and how they have adapted their annual campaign to encourage public understanding of breast cancer and promote early detection amid the pandemic:

Hi Kafa. Were your project team hesitant to organise a breast cancer awareness campaign this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

"No, we [the project team] did not hesitate at all. We were very determined to organise the campaign, and are planning to continue to raise awareness about breast cancer after the end of October in order to reach as many women as possible and protect them against breast cancer. We did have some concerns about whether we would be able to involve the same large number of campaign participants as in previous years at a time when most activities must be held online rather than in person. But we accepted this challenge, and the team came up with creative ways of safely delivering messages and engaging the community in awareness-raising activities.

"Raising awareness about breast cancer is particularly important at this time. Breast cancer will not end or wait because there is a coronavirus outbreak. Many women neglect their health and ignore routine screening, waiting for life to go back to normal after the virus disappears. We need to remind them that early detection is lifesaving.

"For many women, cancer is synonymous with death, so they say that they prefer not to know if they have the disease. In our educational sessions we explain that treatment and recovery is possible, and we include testimonies from survivors. This encourages many women to book a test after the sessions or an appointment with the project’s doctors or ask to be referred for free mammograms."

What have the effects of COVID-19 been on breast cancer diagnostic and treatment services for Palestinian women?

"In previous years for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, some organisations used to provide free mammograms or organise awareness sessions. This year, however, no one is talking about breast cancer or supporting the full cost of testing services except for us, through our [MAP-supported] Reproductive Health project. As a result, we have seen a big increase in demand for mammography and echography services. Women are contacting us after every awareness session and asking to book appointments for consultations or testing.

"Some women refuse to go to hospitals to do the mammogram as they think that the risk of getting an infection from hospitals is high. However, when they know that there are strict precautionary measures in place, they are reassured."

What feedback did you receive from last year’s campaign? Did it motivate you to go ahead with this year’s campaign?

"The feedback from last year was very encouraging. NGOs started calling us, asking us to hold awareness sessions on breast cancer at their centres. The local community liked that we gave them access to free testing and consultations with the doctors. We were able to help many women. In one of the awareness sessions that I was giving, a participant said she has the signs and symptoms I mentioned. After seeing the doctor at the reproductive health clinic, she was referred for a mammogram. She was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is doing well now after having a mastectomy and chemotherapy."

With many of this year’s awareness activities conducted online, were you able to achieve similar results as last year?

"This year, most of the sessions were conducted online, and we also used social media to raise awareness. This actually helped us reach out to a wider audience, including women and girls that do not usually come to reproductive health clinic or participate in our activities. The clinic started receiving many new clients who found out about the project’s services through social media or friends who attended online sessions.

"We are aware that not all women have internet access or are able to use the needed technology, so we mobilised the ‘community mothers’ – a team of volunteer mothers trained by us to deliver awareness messages – to distribute brochures about breast cancer while providing information to women in the refugee camp. More than 800 women were reached this way. A limited number of in-person sessions with increased precautionary measures were conducted to this target group as well.

"To further engage the community, we organised a competition where community members send or post videos and photos with key information about breast cancer. Voting for the best posts will take place at the end of the month and winners will receive gifts. This activity has been very popular so far. In general, I am very happy with the results achieved in this year’s campaign."

What advice would you give to women?

"Early detection is lifesaving. Don’t ignore routine screening even if you have no signs. Take care of your health as you are very important to your family and children."

Thank you for talking Kafa, and all that you and your team do!

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