Cancer patients in Syria struggle with drug shortages, treatment costs
Enab Baladi – Sarah al-Ahmad
“I felt a sharp pain in my chest two years ago, initially I thought it was bronchitis due to smoking, then discovered that I had cancer outside the left lung,” said Mariam (56 years old), describing the discovery of her cancer diagnosis.
Before knowing her condition, Mariam, a woman from Damascus whose husband had passed away and who lives alone with her brother after her children left the country, went to a specialist who requested an image via a CT scanner, costing 500,000 Syrian pounds, only to reveal cancer cells attached to the heart wall, meaning lung removal surgery was not an option, thus beginning the struggle of treatment.
I was directed to al-Bayrouni Hospital to take Iranian chemotherapy doses costing two million pounds per dose for adults,” said Mariam.
In addition to the difficulty of treatment and the high cost of doses, there are other factors Mariam complained about, such as unsanitary conditions and lack of attention to patients, describing what she said were “horrifying scenes” within al-Bayrouni Hospital.
Amid the absence of free treatment, significant price increases of chemotherapy doses, and shortage of specialized centers and specialists, cancer patients throughout Syria face severe and harsh health conditions, added to the economic and living crises in areas under the Syrian regime.
Sold everything she owned
Mariam refused to take any dose because the chemotherapy was Iranian, “Iranian chemotherapy is like water, never rush for it, it speeds up death instead of curing the patient,” Mariam said.
All these factors prompted her to a private hospital for her doses, despite being more costly, with every German chemotherapy dose costing three and a half million Syrian pounds.
The lady sold her house in Damascus, and the pain in her treatment journey was not only losing her hair, the emaciation of her body, and the constant thinking about death but also thinking about how to afford the next dose, as she said.
Mariam, according to what she told Enab Baladi, received 29 chemotherapy doses and 37 radiation sessions.
Rula, from the Lajat area in the eastern countryside of Daraa, also told Enab Baladi about her nephew’s cancer journey.
Rula said her nephew, Zain Aliwi (11 years old), has been fatherless since 2016, living with his mother in his father’s parents’ house, with one brother and three younger sisters.
His disease was first discovered a year and a half ago when a lump appeared on his left arm near the armpit.
Initially, the family thought the lump was due to being hit by his younger sister with a pen, but the pain intensified, especially during his work in agricultural projects after leaving school. After visiting the doctor and having it removed, they discovered sarcoma, then another appeared, and after its excision and examination, they learned it was a malignant tumor.
Rula added, “Here, our real struggles began between informing his mother and convincing my nephew to receive treatment, especially since the doctor told me that the malignancy was in the blood, and between securing the cost of the treatment and traveling between Lajat in Daraa’s countryside and Damascus for chemotherapy.”
The treatment was at al-Bayrouni Hospital, crowded with patients from women and children scattered in hallways and untidy and uncaring treatment rooms, according to Rula.
Zain’s family refused Iranian treatment, like Mariam’s case, and tried to register him at the Basmat Amal cancer center, but to no avail, as the center accepts a very limited number of patients, leaving the rest to other hospitals.
The family gathered some money which hardly suffices; the cost of each German-made chemotherapy dose for children reaches two million and 300 thousand Syrian pounds in private hospitals, in addition to transportation from Lajat in rural Daraa to the capital Damascus, without a source of income.
Zain’s psychological state also plays a role, as he refuses to enter the hospital, despite needing a daytime dose, and after a few days another dose, after which he stays in the hospital for a week, worsening his psychological condition, and he refused to eat and his body weakened during the treatment period, with his hair loss accompanied by his crying, affected by these changes.
15 chemotherapy doses and 33 radiation sessions, then the doctors informed Zain’s family that his treatment journey had ended, either Iranian chemotherapy or no treatment at all.
Hundreds of patients from eastern provinces
Majd Salem al-Saeed (a pseudonym for security reasons), one of the treating specialists at al-Bayrouni Hospital, told Enab Baladi, that the hospital receives hundreds of cases monthly, with 80% of them coming from the northeastern and northern governorates (Deir Ezzor, al-Hasakah, and Raqqa), many of whom are children and women.
The specialist noted that northern governorates like Aleppo and Idlib come second in terms of numbers and that Idlib has the highest rate of cases in the north.
The specialist continued, “It seems that the effects of shelling with various weapons during the past years leave dangerous diseases, particularly among children.”
He added that one of the causes might be the manual oil refining in northeast Syria, which is medically considered one of the most dangerous gases causing cancer, especially lung cancer.
He confirmed that most cases of cancer in al-Bayrouni Hospital are bone cancer, respiratory system, breast, and lymphoma.
The treatment was free, according to the doctor, but the discontinuation of imports from foreign countries forced the hospital to contract for importing Iranian chemotherapy.
Iranian chemotherapy does not treat high-risk cancer diseases such as blood and bone cancers, leading the hospital to ask the patients’ families to secure the treatment with large sums of money.
The doctor mentioned the availability of 600 beds and chairs in the hospital, in addition to nine operating rooms, 15 intensive care beds, three laboratories, and 62 doctors with 395 nurses.
The Syrian Social Insurance Authority has approved accepting cancer patients’ applications from state employees insured health-wise, based on the Board of Directors of the Authority’s decision to provide social care fund support to cancer patients with one million Syrian pounds for each worker who presents evidence of his cancer since the 1st of January.
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