Surviving Breast Cancer Marks Beginning of Journey for Israeli Women

July 11, 2012


At first glance, Ruth, an American-Israeli journalist living in Jerusalem, and Ibtisam, a Palestinian mother of three from the West Bank, could not be from more different worlds. But last month, as they joined JDC’s COPE Forum for Palestinian and Israeli Breast Cancer Survivors on a trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, they cemented a bond that transcends ethnic, religious, and national divides—a bond that can only be understood by fellow survivors of the disease.

Each woman’s story is one of personal triumph and miracle. Ruth, 44, had three children in quick succession, and discovered she had breast cancer while nursing her youngest son. She underwent a lumpectomy and axillary dissection, but she couldn’t go through her radiation treatment alone. She was introduced to JDC’s COPE program, a forum for Israeli and Palestinian breast cancer survivors who are active in health care advocacy. The women’s health initiative includes breast cancer days that promote awareness and early detection, and a peer support group, which particularly appealed to Ruth.

“I know women survive longer, stronger, and statistically better in groups. It’s powerful to see women five, ten, thirty years down the road of survivorship and know that you can live with this, too,” says Ruth about the sense of common experience and shared mission that she found in the group.

“There is something profound and therapeutic about being with women going through exactly what you’re going through… On a very basic human level, the alliance, the empowerment, the healing value is immeasurable.” She has been in remission for a year and a half.

Ruth says the group members’ diverse backgrounds brings an added dimension: “There are a few million women in Israel who speak Hebrew like me but the connection I feel to other women who have been through breast cancer is unique. The life-threatening experience—and the knowledge that there is always the risk of the disease recurring—connects us with other women we would otherwise never have had the opportunity to meet. These relationships are one way that we can begin to develop a mutual understanding.”

That’s how Ruth befriended Ibtisam, 48, a homemaker-turned-breast-cancer-advocate in the aftermath of her trying experience. Twelve years ago Ibtisam, then pregnant with her youngest son, received a diagnosis of inflammatory breast carcinoma. She underwent a mastectomy, initiated five-year hormone therapy, and began making the treks for treatment from the West Bank to Jerusalem, on the other side of the wall. “I had to carry my x-rays with me to convince the IDF I was going for treatment and get through the checkpoints. Prior to going to Bosnia to meet with other women, I had no idea others were overcoming the kinds of challenges I faced accessing clinics, services, and medicine.”

The meeting in Bosnia last month furthered COPE’s mission of helping women realize their potential to overcome the disease’s impact. The women shared their stories, discussed treatment and general self-care, and received training on health advocacy and peer support.

“I am so happy that we can all help each other, learn from each other, and provide one another with psychosocial support,” Ibtisam said.

The Israeli, Palestinian, and Bosnian women—Jews, Muslims, and Christians—recognized that they are united by a common fate and a shared goal of fighting breast cancer, saving lives, and developing the kind of cross-cultural understanding that promotes coexistence and peace.

“This has been an amazing opportunity,” Ruth reflected. “After just a few days I feel that these Palestinian women are my sisters. I know that I have made lifelong friends.”

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