The Palestine Chronicle / June 23, 2022
When a Palestinian in Gaza is diagnosed with cancer, quite often the dilapidated Gaza hospitals would have no medicine for them, save some painkillers, which are also not available in abundance.
This is precisely why most of Gaza’s cancer patients immediately appeal to Israel or Egypt to allow them access to the better-equipped hospitals in the occupied West Bank or Cairo. Quite often, these pleas fall on deaf ears.
Since Israel imposed its hermetic siege on the Gaza Strip in 2007, Palestinian hospitals and doctors struggled to cope with overwhelming conditions, whether those resulting from Israel’s frequent wars or from the pressing demands for life-saving medications. In fact, the problem is so severe that Gazans often die as a result of easily-treatable diseases.
Dr. Zaki al-Zakzouk, a leading Palestinian oncologist in Gaza, is one of several Palestinian doctors who are hoping to reduce the number of cancer cases, especially among women, by launching a cancer screening and prevention center.
The Palestine Chronicle spoke to Dr. al-Zakzouk, who told us that “cancer patients in Gaza carry a very heavy burden. Their cancers are only detected at a later stage, and considering the poorly equipped medical infrastructure in the Strip, chances of survival are slim.”
“Cancer patients require long-term treatment, including radiation therapy, which is not available in the Strip’s hospitals. In many cases, they simply die, waiting for treatment,” al-Zakzouk added.
The Gaza specialist explained to the Chronicle how cancer treatment is often determined by a mixture of biological and genetic analysis. “These tests determine the type of treatment that is required. Unfortunately, none of these treatments are available in Gaza,” according to the Palestinian doctor.
“Nuclear magnetic resonances are required to reveal the stages of the disease in the human body and molecular and nuclear imaging determines the types of surgeries after diagnosing treatment, all of which are not available in the Gaza Strip.”
Cancer treatment requires a comprehensive approach, a network of doctors, analysts, and at times surgeons. But such an integrated center simply does not exist in Gaza, according to Dr. al-Zakzouk.
Even if some patients are allowed access to Jerusalem or Cairo, they simply do not have the funds to pay for such expensive treatments, in addition to the cost of travel.
A few years ago, the Shifa’ Association for Cancer Patients Care opened in the city of Khan Younes, in the southern Gaza Strip. The idea behind the association was to explore ways in order for it to create an integrated form of cancer treatment, including psychological support for cancer patients and their families.
The Palestine Chronicle met with the head of the association and also the chief of surgery at the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younes, Dr. Salim Saqir. Although always keen on finding solutions to the cancer crisis in Gaza, Dr. Saqir became even more determined after his sister herself became a cancer patient.
“Late detection of the disease is the most dangerous aspect of the ongoing crisis”, said Dr. Saqir. “The son of a close friend of mine died in the prime of his youth. His case was diagnosed at a later stage. It was too late, especially that there is very little treatment and very little equipment in the besieged Strip,” Dr. Saqir added.
“I have been involved in the treatment of hundreds of cancer patients, and based on my experience and those of my colleagues, we are certain that an early detection of the disease can simply save thousands of lives,” Dr. Saqir told The Palestine Chronicle.
Dr. Saqir’s association has a lofty goal but according to the Palestinian doctor, the project can be a reality if there is enough support. A ray of hope arrived when the association received the generous donation of a 2,800 square meters piece of land, located in a central part of southern Gaza, connecting three major population centers – Khan Younes, Rafah and Deir al-Balah – together. The challenge now is to build the center itself and to equip it with the needed machinery.
“The Israeli occupation is the biggest obstacle to cancer treatment in Gaza. They refuse to allow radiation and scanning equipment, and use their control over the border crossing to determine who lives and who dies from the 2 million population of Gaza,” Dr. Saqir said. The Shifa screening and prevention center is meant to change all of that.
Dr. Saqir calls on donors and international medical associations to help make the project a reality.
The Palestine Chronicle also met with several cancer patients, including Asma’ Qidreh , a 30-year-old mother of four, also from the city of Khan Younes. In 2019, Asma’ was diagnosed with colon cancer. She managed to survive as her ailment was discovered by total chance when she visited a hospital after complaining of abdominal pain. Her uncle, however, was not so lucky. He died within six months from the diagnosis as his cancerous growth was not discovered early enough. Hundreds of cancer patients die in Gaza every year, as a result of this.
Mervat Hassan is a 43-year-old mother of four. When she realized that she had breast cancer, it was too late for radiation. She had her breast entirely removed when she was barely 30 years old. Hassan told The Palestine Chronicle that for nearly ten years, she has not been able to do a single scan to ensure that she is free from cancer. “Doctors in Jerusalem had recommended that I do a CT scan once every six months, due to metastases on my lung, but the Israelis denied me a permit to cross the Erez checkpoint. And with no such scans in Gaza, I feel that my life is in constant danger.”
According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, there are approximately 1,700 new cancer cases in Gaza every year.
Abdallah Aljamal is a Gaza-based journalist. He is a correspondent for The Palestine Chronicle in the Gaza Strip