The author (in blue) hugs one of the Palestinian women in her group, Ibtisam.(Vanja Cerimagic)
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Brought Together by Cancer

Israeli and Palestinian breast-cancer survivors build camaraderie as we face a common enemy

Ruth Ebenstein
October 15, 2012
The author (in blue) hugs one of the Palestinian women in her group, Ibtisam.(Vanja Cerimagic)

The hot flash begins at the soles of my feet and races up my legs to my chest, scaling higher until sweat beads on my forehead. The hormonal medication I take to prevent any breast cancer cells I may still harbor from binding to estrogen is knocking my internal thermostat out of whack.

Fanning my face with my left hand, I raise my right.

“Can we please open a window?” I ask in English. “I’m on Tamoxifen.”

Before the interpreters can convert my words into Bosnian and into Arabic, the room erupts into laughter.

In Breastcancerland, “Tamoxifen” requires no translation.

I am part of an eight-person Israeli/Palestinian delegation of women breast-cancer survivors that has traveled to Sarajevo to meet with 30 Bosnians—ethnically Bosniak, Serbian, and Croatian breast-cancer survivors who are Muslim, Serbian Orthodox, and Catholic, respectively. Like us, they too reach across lines of ethnicity and religion to support each other.

All of us have been brought together by a women’s health empowerment coalition because we have more than cancer in common: We share experience with regional conflict. Although we have been given explicit instructions to avoid conversing directly about our respective histories of war and bloodshed, those histories loom. Yet some inaudible sense of camaraderie and deep understanding also permeates the room.

Our delegation is from a group at home, the Cope Forum, which gathers Israeli and Palestinian women survivors every month in West Jerusalem, with attendance ranging from 30 to 50 women at a time. Since we are divided by checkpoints and a separation fence, our scheduled meetings offer our only chance to socialize and get to know each other face to face. This sojourn in Bosnia marks the first opportunity that the eight of us have to break bread, giggle in the back of the bus, and get to know each other free of the political baggage of home. Although in Jerusalem we generally do not talk politics, apparently out of some instinct regarding group preservation, here I am liable to crack jokes about the occupation. It’s a sad truth that, in 2012, I have to travel all the way to Bosnia to get to know my Palestinian neighbors.

To an uninitiated passerby, we are a gaggle of women sitting in upholstered chairs arranged in a circle. Whether we’re sporting jeans or donning a traditional hijab and flowing dress, nothing outward reveals the scars left by our lumpectomies, mastectomies, and reconstructions.

Today’s kickoff session is slated to explore how support groups can foment change, with 30 minutes allocated for introductions. It soon becomes clear that all we want to do is connect personally.

The perfunctory “My name is … ” is followed by talk of diagnoses, children and grandchildren, and life aspirations. The conversation quickly gets intimate. Ikhlas, a Palestinian homemaker, confesses that only her immediate family knows that she has had breast cancer. Dinah, an Israeli science researcher who works at Hadassah Hospital (which is far from the city center), explains that she is often the first breast-cancer survivor who can make it in to greet Palestinian women after a mastectomy; she says that she typically reads a message of hope in transliterated Arabic and nods compassionately when the response comes too fast for her to understand. Seja, a Bosnian administrator who has battled many illnesses since childhood, calls her multiethnic support group her lifeline.

Ever longing to befriend Palestinian women, I knew that this shared experience would jump-start intimacy. But I never imagined the heart-to-heart connections that would emerge.

It’s my turn. I describe my diagnosis in 2010 at age 42 while nursing my baby. Then my voice cracks. Struggling to stymie my tears, I am overwhelmed by the coexistence and sisterhood that I have come to find. When a friend emailed me days after my lumpectomy about an Israeli-Palestinian support group, I felt buoyed by the prospect of something “good” coming out of my disease. Ever longing to befriend Palestinian women, I knew that this shared experience would jump-start intimacy. But I never imagined the heart-to-heart connections that would emerge.

I regain some composure.

“When the radiologist said the tumor was malignant, I thought that I was going to die.” I pause, listening to my biography repeated in incomprehensible Bosnian and Arabic. “I never dreamed that it would bring me Ikhlas, Firial, Madline, and Ibtisam.”

I look at the Bosniak, Serbian, and Croatian survivors in the room and consider the complexity of their past.

Walking around Sarajevo the day before, I saw vestiges of rocket and mortar attacks and buildings punctured with bullet holes shot by snipers. I think about the stadium built for the 1984 Winter Olympics that was converted into a mass graveyard. Through what did these women live in their devastating civil war, and what emotions have they put aside to be together today?

“I don’t speak your language,” I say, “but you all feel so familiar.”

Now everyone starts dabbing their eyes. Some cry.

My next thought, I don’t say out loud. Our true enemy does not care for whom we vote, to what God we pray, or our national or ethnic lineage. In the battle to stay alive, we are all no more and no less than warriors for life—and heroines. And now we have unwittingly become ambassadors for peace because we understand that kicking cancer is the real fight—not man-made regional conflict.

In our case, it’s no effort to reach out to the other. Because I do not see others in this room: I see women just like me.

Strangers stand up to hug. The Bosnians belt out a Bosnian song. The Palestinians add a backbeat in Arabic. I don’t understand one word of what they’re singing, but it doesn’t matter one bit.


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Ruth Ebenstein, an American-Israeli journalist, is the author of the forthcoming memoir Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered an Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide.

Ruth Ebenstein is an American-Israeli journalist, historian, public speaker, and peace activist. She is writing a memoir about an Israeli-Palestinian friendship begun in a breast cancer support group.