Dr Philippa Whitford meets breast cancer survivors at MAP-supported clinic in Gaza

Earlier this month, breast cancer surgeon and UK Member of Parliament Dr Philippa Whitford MP returned to Gaza for the first time in 25 years, having volunteered there with Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) in the early 1990s. Alongside the educational seminars she conducted for Palestinian medical students and surgical teams, Dr Whitford visited a number of MAP’s projects to witness how MAP’s vital work continues to support the health needs of Palestinians in Gaza a quarter of a decade on.

One such visit was to a MAP-supported women’s health centre in Al Bureij refugee camp, in Gaza’s Middle Area. Run by one of our local partners, the Culture and Free Thought Association (CFTA), this centre provides a number of services to women in the camp, including physiotherapy, reproductive health care, psychosocial support, and health education.

At the centre, Dr Whitford and MAP staff sat down with a group of 17 breast cancer survivors, who shared their treatment and recovery journeys, and the obstacles they have faced along the way, often due to the restrictions placed upon them living in Gaza.

All of the women present had undergone mastectomy (surgical removal of a breast) and clearance of axillary lymph nodes (glands in the adjacent armpit where breast cancer often spreads). This surgery had left many of them with uncomfortable and sometimes painful swelling – known as lymphoedema – in their arms. In the UK, new techniques for detecting the spread of cancer to the lymphatic system, such as sentinel node biopsy, reduce the number of these ‘axillary node clearance’ procedures. In Gaza, however, the blockade restricts the ability of surgeons to travel abroad to learn new techniques, and the number of clearance procedures carried out remains high.

One woman, a widow, revealed that she had been referred by the Ministry of Health in Gaza for specialist treatment at an Israeli hospital in Tel Aviv. The referral from the Ministry would only cover the cost of the treatment, however, meaning that she was forced to borrow money from her neighbours to cover the cost of transportation. Another woman, diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, told us she had been able to access the treatment she needed, but had struggled to access follow-up care for complications.

The CFTA clinic provides individual and group support sessions for women undergoing breast cancer treatment, as well as providing adapted bras and external prosthetics to mastectomy patients. Such care can be vital to improving women’s quality of life after surgery, as Dr Whitford explained: “Mastectomy affects both the woman’s health status and her esteem. Doctors don’t always think of the whole of the woman’s life.”

MAP’s team accompanying Dr Whitford on her entry into Gaza brought with them a number of these prostheses from the UK for distribution through the centre. One woman told us her son was due to get married soon, and that these would enable her to wear the dress she had bought for the occasion with confidence. She now had two reasons to be cheerful, she said: “I am very happy with the wedding, and with the bra!”

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Featured image: Dr Whitford with breast cancer survivors at the MAP-supported women's health clinic in Bureij camp, Gaza.

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