Theater and medicine come together to raise awareness on cancer

​​Jennifer Muller, Office of Communications, jm26@aub.edu.lb

Held on the occasion of World Cancer Day, the Naef K. Basile Cancer Institute (NKBCI) of the AUB Medical Center hosted a performance of Wasafuli el-Sabr at AUB’s Saab Medical Library, presenting stories of real women in the Arab world grappling with cancer. This special theatrical event aimed at breaking the stigma on talking about cancer, raising public awareness, and highlighting the importance of caring for cancer patients in the Arab world. 

World Cancer Day is an annual awareness-raising day meant to show solidarity with and give courage to the millions of people around the world who are struggling with cancer, as well as to encourage the prevention, detection, and treatment of this widespread disease. Diverse initiatives are undertaken around the globe to mark this day with the ultimate goal of significantly reducing illness caused by cancer by 2020.

The Wasafuli el-Sabr event at AUB was attended by more than 200 people, including cancer patients and their families, local and international physicians—many of whom were attending the Beirut Breast Cancer Conference organized by NKBCI—as well as nurses, administrators, students, and members of prominent NGOs working in the field of cancer awareness.

Dr. Ali Taher, director of NKBCI, addressed the audience before the play and emphasized the need to increase cultural awareness about cancer through innovative approaches such as combining art and medicine in order to support those suffering from cancer. 

Wasafuli el-Sabr, written by Dr. Abir Hamdar and directed by Dr. Lina Abyad, debuted this past summer at Masrah al Madina and features a cast composed of Lebanese, Syrian, and Iraqi actors. It explores how Arab women with cancer feel, and how it impacts their relationship with themselves and with others, including doctors, husbands, lovers, children, and fellow sufferers. Hamdar spoke before the performance at AUB on behalf of the director, cast, and crew. 

“This play began with a set of interviews I conducted anonymously with female cancer patients from across the Arab world and it tries to give voice to their experience of living with cancer; experiences that they have often not shared with anyone at all before,” said Hamdar. “So it is really fitting that we should be able to perform the play tonight in this venue and to allow these women to speak to doctors, nurses, and patients for the first time.”

Hamdar also praised the tremendous support this play has received from Dr. Taher and Dr. Nagi El Saghir, director of the Breast Center for Excellence at NKBCI.

“This is a key event for us precisely because the dramatic arts can enter into dialogue with medical practice, thus facilitating knowledge exchange,” Hamdar told the audience. “Dr. Taher’s visionary practice and outlook as well as his longstanding support of the arts will guarantee that an arts-in-health program can now be deeply embedded in the very infrastructure of medical education and practice in Lebanon and the region more widely, especially as it relates to adult cancer care.”

The performance itself held many poignant moments, including when one of the actors—herself a breast cancer survivor—had her head shaved live on stage. After the play, there was a question-and-answer period and some audience members shared their own experiences struggling with cancer and voiced their gratitude to the doctors and nurses who gave them so much support throughout their ordeal. Many people also expressed their hope that more such events combining arts and medicine will be held in the future.

In addition, the audience was encouraged to write their thoughts and feelings on sticky notes after the performance.  One of the anonymous messages said: “The most difficult thing about this play is us feeling every emotion you gave us: the feeling of fear and strength.” Another viewer wrote: “Amazing play. I am a cancer patient and it was like it was me who wrote the play.” And another simply said: “Now I understand how it feels​. Broke my heart.”