Naimeh's story: “All cancer patients suffer, but our suffering is inconceivable”

Naimeh Abed, a 45-year-old mother of six from Gaza, was diagnosed with cancer three times in eight years.

The first diagnosis was breast cancer in 2011. She received treatment at Augusta Victoria Hospital (AVH), in East Jerusalem, including a mastectomy (surgical removal) of the left breast, chemotherapy and radiation. In 2011 she faced no permit issues exiting Gaza for treatment.

In 2016, she was diagnosed again with cancer, this time in her right breast. She underwent the same procedures of mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The women’s health centre in Al Bureij refugee camp, which is run by MAP’s partner, Culture and Free Thought Association (CFTA), provided Naimeh with regular home visits. “I was completely exhausted from chemotherapy and radiation. I had no physical or mental energy to go to the centre. Instead, they provided the service of regular home visits by a physiotherapist and a social worker. They both supported my overall health substantially. In some weeks I had enough strength to go to the centre and receive group counselling, medical tests, nutrition supplies and join their trips. The centre was and still is an essential source of support at all levels,” Naimeh said.

In 2017, Naimeh was diagnosed with skin cancer. Previous treatment however, had left her heart muscles very weak, with only 18% functionality due to repeated exposure to chemotherapy and radiation. Naimeh was therefore unable to receive intravenous chemotherapy (chemotherapy given into a vein), so had to take the treatment orally through tablets which are unavailable in Gaza. Her doctor therefore referred her to AVH again to receive the appropriate chemotherapy and radiation sessions. “I applied for a permit to exit Gaza through Erez in September 2018, and after my permit was delayed for two months, I decided to reach out to the Red Cross and human rights organisations. At last, on 9 January I got approval to leave Gaza and get the treatment in Jerusalem. My sister, 52, was supposed to be my companion, but they rejected her application. I went alone. I stayed in Jerusalem for one month, dealing with all the complications of cancer treatment on my own. But I got support from other cancer patients from Gaza,” Naimeh said.

While the Palestinian Authority covers the costs of treatment and accommodation for cancer patients from Gaza who get referred to seek treatment at AVH, it doesn’t cover the necessary transport. For Gaza patients needing to travel to and the West Bank, this can be a particularly heavy burden, and increases the isolation and costs on people usually separated from family or friends for long periods.

All cancer patients suffer, but our suffering is inconceivable, as we have to make the journey from our houses to AVH and back after the wearing treatment. The journey takes from four to six hours and costs 150 NIS (£30) for one way- if you want to go in a four passenger’s vehicle from Erez to AVH. However, sometimes I can’t afford this, so I take the bus, which will cost 50 NIS (£10) less. But the bus is awful, it makes my nausea worse, plus you must wait for hours until all the seats are occupied and the bus leaves.” Naimeh added, “the journey is not only a financial burden, it is a physical and mental burden as well. Crossing Erez can be the hardest thing a cancer patient can do after chemotherapy. Imagine how humiliating it can be to stand in line for hours, walk for a long distance and get interrogated.”

It has been an exhausting journey with cancer and the treatment. Sometimes I feel like giving up. But when I see my children- especially my youngest daughters- the idea of leaving them alone breaks my heart. That is why I want to fight cancer and fight the obstacles and get the treatment,” Naimeh said.

This story is part of a collection of accounts of Palestinian women affected by breast cancer and the many difficulties they face accessing care