What if?

Today I saw the worst case of breast cancer I have ever seen. The Chief of Medicine asked me to come and see a patient with the surgeon, as the patient appeared to have a large abscess on her neck. On examination, we quickly discovered that this was actually a metastatic growth, with the primary tumour being in the breast. The patient was also suffering from extreme shortness of breath, and I am sure we will find that the cancer has also invaded her lungs. There is really nothing we can do for this patient, other than make her as comfortable as possible. Her mother was devastated with this news, and as a mother myself, I can completely understand. We just hugged each other, and I cried with her.

Sometimes, the seeming futility of this job overwhelms me. We see so many diseases – both chronic and acute – that we are unable to do anything about. When I considered coming to Afghanistan, I felt I was prepared to see malnutrition, wounded patients, trauma, etc. I did not realize the amount of chronic diseases and other conditions that we would be helpless to treat. At home, this woman would have had a mammogram and ultrasound when she first noticed a lump in her breast. She would have received free health care that would have, in all likelihood, saved her life. We have no chemotherapy, radiation therapy, mammography, or indeed oncologists here in Helmand. MSF provides free medications and treatment, as much as we are able, but our resources are limited, and we cannot treat these sorts of illnesses. While I understand that on an intellectual basis, it frustrates me to know that in my country this woman would probably survive, but here she will have no chance. Why was I lucky enough to be born in a rich country? Why wasn’t she?

In the past couple of weeks we have had a rough time, with the attack on the ICRC compound in Jalalabad resulting in a decrease in some activities in Afghanistan. Movements have been restricted in some areas of the country, although we are still able to work here in Helmand.

I will admit that the war, with all of its consequences, is wearing on me. I can’t help but wonder ……if we just took the money that has been spent on all of the bombs and guns, etc and spent it on healthcare, would we have been able to save this patient’s life? Could we afford to give free medications for chronic diseases, so that the people here could have permanent treatment, instead of the “patching up” work that they get now?

I know that I am just a dreamer, but what if…..?

Georgann MacDonald

MSF nurse Georgann works in Boost Hospital, Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, Afghanistan where she is responsible for the female in-patient ward, emergency and out-patient departments. Read more about Georgann…

MSF Field Blogs reflect the views of the author alone and not necessarily those of Médecins Sans Frontières

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3 Responses to What if?

  1. Thank you for telling this heart wrenching account which a friend and former colleague pointed me towards. As a Scottish woman working in the humanitarian/development field in Asia and living through breast cancer diagnosis while here this resonates so strongly. I wrote only yesterday about that very issue of equity and just how critical it is to keep highlighting just how desperate the situation is in so many contexts.

    Thank you for telling this reality – I have such huge respect for your work.


  2. M. P. says:

    Georgann – This post is very moving. The frustration at not being able to help that woman and many others must seem overwhelming at times. Just remember all the good you are able to do for those you can help. And keep writing things like this that ask that question which needs to be asked over and over – why aren’t countries’ resources spent on the public good?
    Thank you!

  3. Ginny Barb says:

    My thoughts and prayers go out to you and your patients!
    I wonder about our seeming privilege to have been born in developed countries.. and can only reconcile myself with it by helping those who were not.
    My favorite quote from the incredible Dr. Dooley, “The only way man can achieve his own happiness is to strive for the happiness of others”.
    If you are feeling a little low, please know that you are in our hearts!
    And thank you.

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