Clock ticks for Lebanese cancer patients as shortages bite

About 10 per cent of patients are unable to get treatment because of fallout caused by the economic crisis

Christine Tohme, a cancer patient, during a sit-in in Beirut on August 26, 2021 to protest about shortages of cancer medication. Reuters

Christine Tohme had already been told she had ovarian cancer when Lebanon's financial system began to unravel in 2019. She never expected that two years later the country's economic meltdown would pose a direct threat to her life.

Ms Tohme, 50, was in February found to be suffering from stage three colon cancer. After surgery this year, she was prescribed six sessions of chemotherapy.

But with shortages of basic goods affecting every aspect of Lebanese life, Ms Tohme was told there was no guarantee she would complete her treatment because hospitals were likely to run out of vital drugs.

So far she has undergone only three sessions. The cancer has metastasised to her lymph nodes and she fears if she cannot complete her treatment she will have only months to live.

Having knocked on every door to try to secure her medication at any cost, Ms Tohme took to the streets on Thursday, despite her ailing health, to join a sit-in protest with other cancer patients, doctors and non-government organisations.

"I'm hoping that God gives me strength, as I don't have that much, to stand on my two feet and take part so that maybe people will see us and sympathise with us and send us treatment," she said before the event.

"I have kids, I want to be happy with them and see them get married and become a grandmother."

Lebanese healthcare workers have for months expressed concern about declining stocks of vital medical supplies. Many pharmacy shelves are empty as the country's foreign reserves are depleted by state subsidies for fuel, wheat and medicine that cost about $6 billion a year.

We need an immediate solution. I can't tell my patients this is a crisis and ask them to wait till it eases because this disease has no patience
Dr Joseph Makdessi

This month the central bank declared it could no longer finance fuel imports at subsidised exchange rates because its dollar reserves had been so badly depleted.

Ms Tohme's case is not unique. Joseph Makdessi, who heads the haematology and oncology department at the Saint George Hospital University Medical Centre, estimates that about 10 per cent of cancer patients have been unable to get treatment in the past couple of months.

"We need an immediate solution," Dr Makdessi said. "I can't tell my patients this is a crisis and ask them to wait till it eases because this disease has no patience."

Lebanon's deeply indebted state is struggling to raise funds from abroad amid political paralysis and has gradually eradicated many subsidies.

Cancer medications are still subsidised, meaning that for agents to import them they have to wait for financing from the central bank, which has all but run down its reserves.

Dr Makdessi is not optimistic that easing subsidies on cancer drugs will solve his patients' pressing problem.

Some chemotherapy treatments, which can cost as much as $5,000 per session, are subsidised so that the patient pays about $400, with the state bearing the rest of the cost.

"Even if you lift this subsidy to make the medication available, many patients won't be able to afford it," he said.

The health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Caretaker health minister Hamad Hassan, who has been raiding depots storing large quantities of drugs and medical supplies, partly blamed the shortages on traders hoarding supplies.

The Barbara Nassar Association for Cancer Patient Support, the Lebanese advocacy group that organised Thursday's sit-in, has provided medication worth more than $1.5 million in 2020 through in-kind donations from former patients.

But Hani Nassar, whose wife Barbara founded the organisation before passing away from the disease years ago, says the country's fractious politics are now hampering efforts to alleviate the problem.

"The central bank wants to remove the subsidy and the health ministry doesn't and in the meantime the patient is sitting there without treatment," Mr Nassar said.

At Thursday's sit-in, patients said they were reaching out to whoever could help them get a second chance at life.

"After all I endured, I lost my nails and hair and my body changed, now I reached this point of not finding the treatment and this really set me back," engineer Bahaa Costantine said.

"I was a person who was full of energy and loves life, I don't want to be a bride for heaven, this is what I refuse. I hope my voice reaches someone who can help."

Updated: August 27, 2021, 11:13 AM