Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Big C | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Last week, international news agencies and media outlets carried the news of the death of the Apple technology company founder, Steve Jobs, as a result of the pancreatic cancer from which he had suffered for a long time. Of course this was very important news, and was covered in an impressive and deserved fashion, but what caught my attention was the quality of treatment which he had received for this complex and malicious disease that is feared by millions; cancer.

Medicine is the most important civil and moral domain that separates nations; the more this area is developed, the more a state becomes civilized, moral, and cohesive. The divide in this domain is growing most significantly in the study and treatment of cancer; the largest and most innovative sector of medicine, research and development. Cancer is a lethal illness; therefore it has been labeled with negative terms by those who fear it, words such as “The Disease”, “evil”, and “shame”. All these words describe people’s fear and horror of it, and hence there is an urgent need for knowledge and to work towards the removal of this awe, and to develop ways of dealing with the illness through awareness, treatment and follow-up.

American philosopher Ken Wilber had a personal experience with the disease after his wife developed a severe case of breast cancer, and says that people deal with cancer as two entities. There is the illness aspect, “a specific disease with medical and scientific dimensions”, and there is the sickness element; a “phenomenon loaded with cultural and social meanings”. Wilber cites that when someone says they have the flu, everyone reacts in an ordinary manner, but when someone says they have cancer; people offer their condolences and act as if they are preparing for death and mourning. Wilber says that the real breakthrough in dealing with cancer came with a third stage; people’s ability to accommodate the idea of the cancer “patient”, especially with the dramatic and multiplying spread of cases, and the many examples of successful treatment and cure.

The spread of cancer in the Middle East almost resembles an epidemic, for reasons unknown. Liver cancer in Egypt has become a national problem, while breast cancer in Saudi Arabia has reached alarming rates. In Iraq, the figures for skin cancer are shocking, whilst in Jordan and Lebanon there is an abnormal proliferation of lung cancer. In addition to this we have not touched upon the cancers prevalent amongst children, whether relating to the blood or nerve cells. Yet with great regret, both state and private treatment for cancerous tumors is weak to say the least. The level of health services provided to treat cancer are very limited compared to the developed world, and not equivalent to what is provided for heart and kidney disease and diabetes for example.

There are modest, independent efforts being made by associations and individuals aiming to provide social outreach to educate society, and identify the symptoms of the disease, its causes, and methods of combatting it. These campaigns have enjoyed limited success, but these efforts must be accompanied by specialized health centers and qualified medical staff, which are practically non-existent. I am the father of a daughter with cancer, and I have lived through this tragedy personally. In my heart, I cannot consider what the Arab world offers in terms of treatment and dealing with cancer to be suitable, rather I consider it to be terrible, both by medical and moral standards.

There are centers of excellence in cancer treatment worldwide; Germany has become an important focal point for bone cancer, Austria for prostate cancer, and Australia and likewise Japan for pancreatic cancer, but of course America remains at the heart of the medical and scientific movement to confront this scourge. Arab society needs public figures to break the shameful stigma attached to this topic, such as Dr. Samia al-Amoudi in Saudi Arabia. Here it is necessary to pay tribute to the distinguished social project of the Children’s Cancer Hospital in Egypt, which is distinguished in the sense of fostering community interdependence, but we require far more than this.