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Battling Cancer with Spirit in Gaza

[Mom takes a selfie at their Christian friends’ wedding in Gaza City. Her mobile is marked with the first letter of her name, Beesan. Photo by Lara Aburamadan] [Mom takes a selfie at their Christian friends’ wedding in Gaza City. Her mobile is marked with the first letter of her name, Beesan. Photo by Lara Aburamadan]

One year ago, my mother came to my house for a visit. She was late. We sat together on a mattress. She opened her cigarette pack, took out two cigarettes, and we smoked together. It was hot that day.

She told me that she just returned from the doctor. She wanted to tell me that she discovered she has breast cancer and should start the treatment immediately. I was the first one to know. She said that she wished that she didn’t know and could pretend that nothing happened. Two years before, she had felt a small tumor in her right breast but doctors at that time wrongly diagnosed it as just a fibrous mass.

She was scared and worried. I was silent and shocked. After a couple of minutes I tried to let her know that it’s okay, that she can do it, she will defeat this stupid disease. I couldn’t think of anything at that moment. I just looked at her and tried to be strong to make her strong.

When it came time to choose a story to work on for the Rawiya/World Press Photo Visual Storytelling Photography Workshop in Gaza this past spring, I decided to tell my mother’s story. I want to show how she lives her normal daily life while dealing with cancer.

My mom is Beesan Al-Hasham, 44, a strong and beautiful woman from Gaza City. She has three daughters and one son. She loves art, music, and make up. She is my role model. I have always loved her joyful spirit and the smile that never leaves her face, even when she’s sad. She is our friend and mother, who gives and sacrifices a lot to make us happy, safe, and loved.

My mom started chemotherapy first. She talked to the doctor who is overseeing most of the cancer patients in Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Al Shifa is the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip. The population of almost two million depends primarily on this hospital, along with other small private hospitals. However, she hesitated to begin. She didn't want to undergo treatment in Gaza because there might be shortages of medicine, or they might give her the wrong treatment plan, and she wouldn’t have much personal attention from the doctor who has to treat a large number of cancer patients. She was already scared about having cancer, she wanted to have faith in the treatment.

I remember that we all went as a family with her to the hospital for the first chemo session. We were six people as we entered the tumor and cancer department in Al Shifa hospital. It was crowded with patients of all ages. Everyone was waiting to see the doctor for a pre-chemo session, or to get their chemo treatment and check up. The place was not clean because the workers in the hospital were not receiving their salaries from the government. In protest they did not do their jobs fully. At that time I understood why my mom was uncomfortable. She told the doctor how she felt. He convinced her to be calm and confident in the whole process. He explained that she will have eight sessions of chemotherapy, then a right breast removal operation, then the radiotherapy.

It was never easy to see her in pain. I felt helpless. I couldn't take the pain away. My sisters and I tried to tell her funny stories or to talk about anything in general and stay around her on her bed, or buy her a nice rose and a candle because she loves both. That was the least we could do to get her mind off how she felt. The first week after each session was the hardest and most painful especially since she would notice the differences in her face and body and the loss of her hair. About ten days after each chemo session she was again able to move from her bed, try to take a shower, put on make-up, see us, and sit around visiting.

I'm sure that each of us from my family searched Google about cancer, chemo, how to deal with it, and what healthy food will make her stronger. We all looked on the good side, which is to be beside my mom. She made it easier on us. She helped herself by accepting the disease, she tried to deal with what she had and to be strong for the family and for her own sake.

I am inspired by her spirit. That doesn't mean she was fine all the time -- of course she had ups and downs. When the chemo treatments were over, she had the breast removal operation. That is when I decided to photograph her during the normal days between the operation and the radiotherapy. She had less confidence in the beginning and would try to hide the area where her breast was removed.

After two months my mom received Israeli government permission that allowed her to go from Gaza to Jerusalem to undergo the radiotherapy, since this treatment is not used in Gaza. She stayed for forty days. She has to have a checkup every three months and take vitamins and calcium and other medicine. Her body is trying to heal after the burns caused by the radiotherapy. She’s feeling fine, strong and smiling as always. In October I painted her a picture for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. She loved it and told me that it touched her heart. She is home in Gaza City now and I have moved to New York. I hope that borders won’t be as hard to cross in the future so that I can see her again with her long hair and pure skin and soul and take more beautiful pictures of her. 

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