Lebanese cancer patients face frantic search for medication

Pharmacy shelves have been empty for months, exacerbated by panic buying and suppliers holding back drugs in hopes of selling them later amid the uncertainty at higher prices. Hospitals are at a breaking point and are barely able to secure diesel to keep generators and life-saving machines running every day.

The drug shortage threatens tens of thousands of people, including cancer patients. Many in desperation have turned to social media or to travelers from abroad. Visitors and Lebanese expats these days often arrive with suitcases full of pills, vials, and other medical supplies for relatives and friends.

Mubarak, a 36-year-old high school teacher and mother of two boys, says feeling unsafe never leaves her. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in July last year, a few weeks before her mother, Helen Akiki, discovered a lump in her breast.

After months of chemotherapy, Mubarak had a mastectomy in December. She is now undergoing therapy that is supposed to last 10 years, consisting of a daily pill and a monthly injection of hormones, so that the cancer does not return.

As the deficiency got worse and Mubarak couldn’t find the hormone, the family posted their story on Instagram along with Mubarak’s cell phone number.

For the next day and a half the phone didn’t stop ringing – Lebanese people from all over the world offered to send her the medication. Six days after she was due for an injection, a traveler from neighboring Jordan gave her the drug.

“It was very emotional,” said Mubarak as she sat in the garden of her one-story house in Qleiat, a mountain town north of Beirut, while her sons ran around feeding chickens and rabbits. She said the traveler refused to take the payment.

Getting the drug isn’t the last hurdle for Mubarak and her mother. Because of the fuel crisis in Lebanon, they worry about finding enough gas every time they have to go to Beirut for treatment. One recent day, Akiki was told that the hospital could not find the drug used for her therapy in the serum. They replaced it with an injection that she said was more painful.

Akiki says the two found the strength to face the fight together, despite battling feelings of guilt that she got sick herself when her daughter needed her most.

“This is not the time for me to be sick,” said Akiki. “I tell myself what is important is she. At that moment a mother stops thinking of herself.”

Issam Shehadeh, head of the cancer department at Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, said the situation had worsened significantly in the past three months. The Department of Health’s supplies of critical drugs are now empty and many hospitals cannot get hold of importers who are holding back.

“We got to the point where we told the patients we had no more options to treat them,” Shehadeh said. Doctors often have no choice but to advise patients to get their medicines from abroad, a difficult task for everyone, but especially for the poor, whose ranks are swelling in the economic crisis. More than half of the 6 million people in Lebanon today live in poverty.

One of Shehadeh’s patients, Wahiba Doughan, who has lung cancer, turned to relatives in France, who sent enough medication for two chemotherapy sessions. Relatives refused to reimburse the costs, but Doughan worries about having to pay for future medication: a government-subsidized dose for a session in Lebanon costs $ 40 – one tenth the price in France.

“I live in fear,” said Doughan, a 60-year-old civil servant. “I’ve found the dose now, but maybe I won’t later.”

In late August, dozens of cancer patients gathered outside the United Nations headquarters in Beirut and called for international help. “We refuse to have a life countdown,” read a banner. Another said, “Our government is killing us.”

Najat Rochdi, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon, burst into tears as she listened to patients discuss their situation. She said her office is in contact with potential donors, including the World Bank, to find solutions.

A new government has promised to get the economic collapse under control.

But with the Lebanese state absent, calls on social media, as in the Mubarak case, have mobilized the country’s large diaspora.

Mubarak says she doesn’t know how to compensate those who sent her drugs for three months.

“I mention them in my prayers every day,” said Mubarak, a devout Christian. “God willing, people will continue to help each other.”