Dr Philippa Whitford is on a mission to bring awareness to women across Palestine about breast cancer, calling it a most urgent matter. She recently performed life-saving breast cancer surgery on four women in Gaza and the West Bank, and says that there are many social, economic and political obstacles impeding women from getting early treatments which is so critical to diagnosing and managing the disease.
In Gaza, breast cancer kills more women than any other form of cancer. Dr. Nufuz Maslamani, director at the Dunya Women’s Cancer Clinic in Ramallah (staffed by an all-female team), says that 60% of cases are detected in the third stage of the disease because many women delay going to the doctor.
Dr. Whitford says that there is a “general perception” in the area that breast cancer isn’t an issue. She first visited Gaza 25 years ago, and was told by local doctors that women didn’t get breast cancer there. When word got out that there was a woman surgeon, however, “women started coming out of the woodwork.”
Many say that the Israeli blockade has affected Palestine women from getting complete chemotherapy and radiation treatments. “You get women who have three doses of chemo and then it dries up,” says Dr. Whitford. “They get started—but then the [radiation] machine in East Jerusalem is broken.” Time is crucial when it comes to cancer. “The way these things work against cancer you’ve got to keep the pressure on,” says the doctor. “Once you’ve stopped the treatment for a period of time—actually, there’s often not a great deal of benefit of going back afterwards.”
“We’re not going to get a change in survival unless women can get access to treatments,” the doctor concluded.