The Dunya Women’s Cancer Centre: Supporting women with breast cancer

This week the MAP-supported Dunya Women Cancer Centre in Ramallah, West Bank, is participating in a women’s beauty exhibition. Between the stands promoting hair products and jewelry, Dunya’s display stands out. A number of breast cancer survivors who have been supported by Dunya stand by their stall, sharing their stories with the women passing by.

Though unconventional, participating in such an event can be hugely beneficial to reaching out to the community, as awareness about breast cancer is still very limited in Palestine. The Dunya Centre runs regular advice sessions for women affected by breast cancer, and thanks to MAP’s support has also hired a physiotherapist who can teach women exercises to help alleviate pain and discomfort many suffer after mastectomy surgery. Today, the physiotherapist is holding a session at the exhibition to demonstrate the Centre’s work.

“You should always try to do everything as you used to before the operation, just be cautious about abrupt or heavy movements.” starts Neama, the new physiotherapist. “So don’t try to carry five kilo of tomatoes back from the market, try to get someone to help you. But if don’t use your arm on the side where you had the operation at all, the muscles will stay weak and the arm less functional.”

"This is new information for me,” says Rula, one of the women attending today’s session. “I am always afraid to use my arm where I had the operation and I try to do everything with the other hand.”

Neama explains to the women about the care available at the Centre: “We will schedule sessions with all of you at Dunya, but I need your commitment to follow through with the exercises at home as well. I will be at the Centre one day a week and available for your questions over the phone anytime.” Together with MAP, Dunya has created a new brochure, explaining the importance of physiotherapy and showing the exercises step-by-step so they can easily continue them at home.

Another woman, who had her operation two years ago and started to do some physiotherapy at home recommended by her doctor, explains how beneficial this advice can be:

“It only takes two minutes in the morning and two in the evening to finish my exercises and I feel a huge difference and I can even say that I feel not just my arm has improved but my health and energy in general. I feel that the problem here is that women only go at the last moment to the therapist when they are already in so much pain, but you can go earlier to prevent this from happening.”

Overcoming barriers to care

Mammography is available in different places in the West Bank but only Dunya offers biopsy, the only diagnostic procedure that can definitely determine if the suspicious area is cancerous. Chemotherapy is available in some West Bank hospitals, but for radiotherapy women must travel to Augusta Victoria hospital in East Jerusalem.

Sophia, 43, recalls the dreadful trips she had to make to get treatment: “You would travel for a long time through checkpoints to arrive in time for your appointment. Often I waited from 8 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon for my turn. More than once, the machine was broken and we had to return without our treatment.”

Rula has a similar experience: “Often I had to wait for more than an hour to cross Qalandia checkpoint to go to Jerusalem, during Ramadan it was even worse because of all the worshippers. I was ill and tired from the chemotherapy and had to stand up waiting in line. I wanted my husband to be there to support me but he did not get a permit so my sister came with me.”

Following her recent visit to the occupied Palestinian territory with MAP, Dr Philippa Whitford MP highlighted the political, social and economic barriers to breast cancer treatment. Through our support for the Dunya clinic, MAP is able to help ensure that communities understand the disease, and that affected women can access the physical and psychosocial support they need from diagnosis to post-surgery.

They supported me on all levels, from the treatment to psychological support, to knowing how to talk about my disease and show people my strength.

Forty-year-old Shifa from Jalazoun, a refugee camp near Ramallah, reflects on the support she has received through the Centre:

“When the doctor referred me to Dunya and I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I thought that my life was over. I didn’t leave the house, and I felt everyone in the camp was pitying me. I got a lot of bad reactions and people pretended like I don’t exist anymore. Dunya really helped me to get through this difficult phase. They supported me on all levels, from the treatment to psychological support, to knowing how to talk about my disease and show people my strength.

“When after a while my neighbors saw my positivity and I started to attend social events again, they did not understand. ‘Are you not sick?’ they would ask me. I really feel that I have an important role to play in my community to educate people about the disease and to show a positive story that can give other patients hope.

“There is a lot of ignorance about breast cancer, especially in the rural villages or the refugee camps. Dunya has awareness raising campaigns and info sessions that are reaching the wider public. It is becoming more known but people are still terrified about the disease.”

Fayza, 51, comes from Deir Jreer, near Ramallah. She was diagnosed and treated before she came to Dunya five years ago:

“What Dunya did for me is not helping me heal physically, but mentally. It was great to meet other women who have been through the same hell and to share experience and learn that you are not alone. We have become like family now.”

Currently Dunya is only able to offer its services in Ramallah, but the director of the Dunya Centre, Dr Nufuz, says she hopes to see this model of support extended to elsewhere in the West Bank: “Women from other governorates often do not have the financial means to pay for transportation to Ramallah and the checkpoints discourage people from travelling far. My dream is to export this success model to other areas.”

 If you would like to support MAP's work, please consider donating today!

Keep up to date

Sign up for our newsletter to receive all the latest updates from our programmes, campaigns and fundraising appeals.