International Women’s Day: supporting breast cancer care for Palestinian women

To mark International Women’s Day this week, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) is celebrating the outstanding contribution of those helping to develop care and support for women affected by breast cancer in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt).

Breast cancer is one of the best understood and most treatable forms of cancer. However, for women living under occupation, rates of survival are incredibly low. Estimates of five-year survival rates among Palestinian women diagnosed with the disease can be as low as 40 percent. This makes breast cancer the highest cause of cancer deaths among Palestinian women.

The MAP-supported Dunya Women’s Cancer Centre in Ramallah is the only clinic in the West Bank to specialise in gynaecology and breast cancer. It offers specialised cancer diagnostic services such as mammography, ultrasound and biopsy, as well as holistic services for women undergoing treatment such as psychological counselling and physiotherapy.

Dunya’s team also work in the community to improve public understanding of the disease and encourage early diagnosis and self-checking.

MAP is also supporting Bethlehem University to provide the very first Higher Diploma in oncology and palliative care for nurses in the oPt. This programme is helping to increase the number of nurses in the West Bank who have the specialised skills, knowledge and evidence-based practice needed to provide high-quality care to patients with cancer in the West Bank.

Challenges in Gaza

The prolonged and unlawful blockade and closure means that many women in Gaza remain cut off from radiotherapy and other essential services in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. In 2017, Israeli authorities granted just 54% of all exit permits for patients referred for treatment outside Gaza, a record low.

A record-high number of Gaza patients, 54, died in 2017 after not obtaining such a permit and missing their scheduled appointments.

Practical support and political action

MAP has been campaigning for barriers to the right to free movement for patients to be removed – including Israel’s permit regime and the blockade and closure of Gaza. These political changes are vital to the long-term realisation of Palestinians’ rights to health.

In Gaza, MAP also supports a women’s health clinic in Bureij refugee camp to provide external breast prostheses to women who have undergone mastectomies (where the whole breast is removed).

Last month our latest delivery of breast prostheses arrived in Gaza. Through our local partner, these will be provided to breast cancer survivors, helping them to retain their sense of dignity.

Getting the prostheses into Gaza, however, was fraught with difficulties and delays. Purchased a year ago, each different size, shape and brand of prostheses had to be listed and photographed in an inventory to be approved by the Israeli authorities. Despite being permitted in September 2017 amid bureaucratic delays, they remained in Ben Gurion Airport for six months. 

 

MAP has expanded its breast cancer programme to Gaza. Last September, a multi-disciplinary team visited the West Bank and Gaza to assess current levels of care and identify new opportunities for training and material support to cancer treatment in the occupied Palestinian territory.

The mission was headed by Dr Philippa Whitford, senior breast cancer surgeon, Member of Parliament, and former MAP volunteer medic. At hospitals in East Jerusalem and Ramallah, the team performed surgeries for women with breast cancer to teach new techniques.

It is hoped these will reduce the number of mastectomies performed, while also helping to improve survival rates. In Gaza, Dr Whitford returned to Al Ahli hospital – where she volunteered with MAP over 25 years ago as a surgeon – to teach these techniques. The team also held educational seminars, sharing the best-practice in breast cancer care with local Palestinian teams.

The MAP-supported breast cancer mission will be returning this spring, helping to further improve breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and care across the oPt.

If you would like to support MAP’s breast cancer work and the work of our partners, please consider making a donation today.

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