Over the Easter recess I travelled 2000 miles to teach and operate in a medical capacity as breast cancer surgery in Palestine. During my visit, I carried four major cancer operations in East Jerusalem before travelling to Gaza to advise hospitals there on how to improve their care.
Sadly, because of the political situation in the region, Palestinian women diagnosed with breast cancer often face an uphill struggle to get quality treatment. More than 8% of Palestinian women develop breast cancer and, according to a 2001 research paper from Harvard Medical School, breast cancer kills more women in Gaza than any other cancer.
The lack of quality treatment in Palestine means that recurrence rates are believed to be more than double those in the UK. That’s partly because of lack of planning, resources and restrictions caused by the Israeli blockade which has been in place since 2006.
There are regular shortages of medicines including those used to treat cancer and no radiotherapy in the enclave. Whilst doctors in the UK would usually remove just a part of the Breast, in Gaza they tend to remove the whole breast and all of the axillary lymph nodes.
This is largely due to difficulties for patients getting out of Gaza to access radiotherapy in Jerusalem. It means women are having much more radical surgery than needed, with all of the associated side effects. Because of this, it is essential that Doctors there use the Internet to keep up to date with new medical techniques and help develop ways of mitigating some of the difficulties associated with a lack of radiotherapy.
The mission was organised by charity Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) with whom I and my husband, Hans, had previously carried out medical work in Gaza in the 1990s. My experience this time, although much shorter, will also have a lasting impact and I have since produced a report for MAP to help them consider how they can help women with breast cancer access better treatment in the area.
And, obviously, in my role as an MP and SNP Spokesperson for Health at Westminster, I will endeavor to ensure that lessons learned from my time in Palestine inform future decisions on international issues.