‘We can’t do anything’: Life-saving cancer drugs running out in East Ghouta, endangering nearly 600 patients

The only cancer treatment center in the besieged, opposition-controlled east Damascus suburbs is running out of chemotherapy drugs, leaving nearly 600 patients in jeopardy, the center’s director tells Syria Direct.

The Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center’s remaining supplies will only last for another week and a half, Dr. Wisam a-Roz, the head of the center tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier.

“In the past month, five patients have died,” says a-Roz. “For others, their health is deteriorating.”

Dar a-Rahma was founded in 2013, the same year that the siege of the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus began. The center provides free cancer treatment to residents.

The center procured its stock of chemotherapy and cancer-fighting drugs from the black market, bringing them in through smuggling tunnels and other gaps in the siege.

But this past February, a Syrian government offensive captured and shut down crucial smuggling tunnels northwest of East Ghouta, cutting off Dar a-Rahma’s only way to restock its inventory.

 A nurse at East Ghouta's Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center works with a patient. Photo courtesy of the Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center.

Though infrequent aid shipments from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) bring medicine and food supplies into the blockaded rebel area, they do not contain the cancer medications used by the Dar a-Rahman Center, Dr. a-Roz tells Syria Direct.

As supplies dwindled in recent months, the center was forced to ration supplies, a-Roz said. For some patients, their drugs ran out entirely.

“As cancer patients, we know that death is coming,” 32-year-old cancer patient Ayman a-Nahla tells Syria Direct. The drugs a-Nahla was taking to treat leukemia have run out, and alternatives have not improved his health, he says. “Still, we place our hopes in treatment.”

Dr. Wisam a-Roz, the director of East Ghouta's Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center.

Q: Why is the Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center threatened with closure?

The center is in danger of closing, but not for financial reasons. Rather, the chemotherapy drugs needed to treat cancer are not available, as a direct result of the [intensified] siege of East Ghouta since February 2017.

[Ed.: Although East Ghouta has been under government siege since 2013, rebels had until recently exploited several gaps in the encirclement to regularly bring food, weapons, fuel, medicine and other supplies into the area.

In February 2017, the regime laid siege to three crucial east Damascus neighborhoods used as staging grounds for smuggling tunnels that fed goods into the rebel enclave. The regime’s February offensive effectively shut down the tunnels, Syria Direct reported at the time.]

The smuggling tunnels were the only way for us to bring in the medicine we buy on the black market. Now, we’re running out of the medicines we use to treat our 1,200 patients.

What we have will last another [week and a half].

Q: When did the medicine shortage begin to affect your cancer patients? Has anyone died as a result of the shortage?

I had to change the course of treatment that I was giving some patients. Some are receiving reduced treatments such as a regimen of three medicines where one is missing and has not been replaced. This causes their health to deteriorate.

For those who had received treatment and improved, their conditions have gotten worse [since the rationing of medicine first began]. They are still being treated right now.

In the past month, five patients have died. For others, their health is deteriorating.

Q: How many patients could be affected if medicine does not arrive?

We have 1,200 patients, 559 of whom are undergoing chemotherapy and whose health could deteriorate if we can't find a way to get the medicine [into East Ghouta].

 Patients lie in beds inside the Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center. Photo courtesy of the Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center.

Q: Is there anything you can do to stay open and keep working?

We can't do anything besides call for help from international organizations, and to make the voices of those suffering from this illness heard.

[These organizations] need to put pressure on the regime to let these medicines enter, either by getting special permission from the Syrian government, by way of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, or a UN aid convoy.

[Ed.: Syria Direct reached out to SARC for comment, but the organization did not respond by the time of publication.]

*  *

Ayman a-Nahla, 32, has leukemia and is a patient at Dar a-Rahma. He is married and has a five-year-old child.

Q: Tell us about your condition. When did you become ill and begin treatment?

I was diagnosed at the al-Abaseen Hospital in Damascus in 2012 before being transferred to the al-Bayrouni Hospital in East Ghouta to treat malignant tumors. After the siege began on East Ghouta, I could no longer go to Damascus.

When the Dar a-Rahma center opened [in 2013], I began receiving chemotherapy there, along with other services they provide for people suffering from cancer.

The medicine is free, and their efforts are a blessing.

I have leukemia, and my disease has become quite severe. When the chemotherapy pills I was taking ran out [earlier this year], they gave me intravenous drips. When those ran out, I began to take Hydrea tablets, but the doctors tell me there hasn’t been any improvement in my condition.

[Ed.: Hydrea is an anti-cancer medication taken orally, often prescribed for leukemia patients.]

Q: When you learned that the center may close and treatment might stop, what was your reaction?

As cancer patients, we know that death is coming. Still, we place our hopes in treatment. The siege has taken this hope from us.

I call on international and humanitarian organizations to help us bring these medicines into East Ghouta, and to look at us as like human beings with the right to live despite illness, siege and war.

I call on the United Nations and all who care about human life to help us get this medicine.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.