East Ghouta cancer center runs out of medicine: ‘We’re losing our patients in front of our eyes’

AMMAN: More than a dozen cancer patients in the opposition-controlled East Ghouta suburbs have died over the course of the past month as a government blockade prevents life-saving anti-cancer medications from reaching the besieged rebel bastion.

In mid-July, Syria Direct interviewed Dr. Wissam a-Roz, an oncologist and the head of the Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center, the only active cancer treatment facility in East Ghouta. After several months without a shipment of anti-cancer medication, the center no longer had enough cancer drugs to properly treat its nearly 600 patients.

“With the way things are going, our patients are getting worse,” a-Roz told Syria Direct last month. “The encirclement shatters any hopes of living a long life.”

Since a-Roz last spoke with Syria Direct, Dar a-Rahma has recorded 13 deaths of its patients, including four children under the age of 10 months old. The center can no longer replenish its stock of crucial anti-cancer drugs. With supplies dwindling, the center is now rationing its limited inventory.

“There are still some medications left, but we completely lack the most crucial anti-cancer drugs right now,” a-Roz told Syria Direct. “There are some treatment regimes that we just cannot do.”

Inside the Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center in East Ghouta. Photo courtesy Dar a-Rahma.

The center relies on mixing and matching the available anti-cancer drugs to provide partial, incomplete treatment regimens to their patients. When a specific drug used in one of these mixtures runs out, the treatment becomes ineffective.

“Some drugs will remain in our supplies longer than others—but they’re useless [without the full mixture.]”

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-Rahma Center, a-Roz told Syria Direct on Monday.

“We’re losing our patients in front of our eyes,” she said. “We can’t treat them. No one is responding to our demands for sending anti-cancer medication to East Ghouta.”

The Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center 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.

A patient at the Dar a-Rahma Cancer Center. Photo courtesy of Dar a-Rahma.

The center procured its stock of chemotherapy and cancer-fighting drugs from the black market, bringing them into East Ghouta via 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-Roz has lobbied the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) to evacuate some of her most vulnerable patients to regime-held Damascus, where they can be provided proper treatment. SARC has yet to approve any of her requests.

Earlier this month, a-Roz reached out to SARC on behalf of six-month-old Kanan, a leukemia patient being treated at Dar a-Rahma.

“We could only provide a simple, two-week treatment to try and save his life,” a-Roz told Syria Direct. “We tried to reach out to everyone we could to evacuate him to Damascus, but in the end he passed away.”

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.

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.