One Afghan woman’s fight against breast cancer

KABUL, Afghanistan – Imagine a dark world ruled by the Taliban. A place where women were subjected to hiding, dressing a certain way, were banned from employment. They had limited medical treatment because male doctors were prohibited from treating women, and were banned from education.

And in this dark world was a light. A woman who fought to educate the young girls of Afghanistan by holding ‘hidden secret schools.’  Now this same women who fought to keep the women of Afghanistan literate, is fighting a new battle. A fight for her life. A women’s fight. A fight against breast cancer.

Naheed is an education director in a non profit organization that oversees several projects including education, orphanages, physical and mental rehabilitation. 

Naheed has worked in education for eight years developing and supporting hidden schools for women during the Taliban Era and more recently, she manages 21 village schools in Paghman.  She has also just recently completed the implementation of a literacy program that serves more than 700 people in 20 villages and includes an early childhood development component, as well as accelerated learning.

She is loving, a true educator and an essential part of the team. She has done everything possible to help launch the “Healthy Afghan Girls Program” in local schools including knocking on doors at the Ministry of Education for permission to conduct the program.

She has worked in education since the late 1990s when she taught an underground school for girls. She has incredible stories of nearly being caught by the Taliban, where the penalty could have been death.

“One time my brother was taking me to a class and the Taliban stopped the car,” said Naheed. “They asked my brother if I was his wife, and he said I was his sister and we were going to a relative’s house. I had a lot of school papers under my seat and if the Taliban would have searched the car, that would have been bad. It was very dangerous.”

The reason Naheed risked her own life was because she believes in education.

“I graduated from the University of Kabul and taught Math, Islam and Dari,” said Naheed, with a smile. “I would teach classes during the Taliban and I also supervised the classes. Education is important for the future mothers of Afghanistan.”

But Naheed has been diagnosed with stage four breast cancer with involvement with her lymph nodes and her bones. She had contacts through her work and was able to receive chemotherapy in India, but this was very expensive. It was paid for by the charity of the people that work with her.

“I went to the doctor in India and he came in one morning and told me something very important,” said Naheed. “He said, ‘I have the results,’ and I said, ‘cancer,’ and he said, ‘yes.’ I was in shock. He told me not worry and I told him I never worry. I am just thinking about my mother and my sister.”

There is no cancer care in Afghanistan. Most people here that are diagnosed with cancer are in already in a very advanced stage and receive no care. They are truly left to die. Women have a worse situation because of the scarcity of female doctors, and it is shameful for them to be examined by a male physician.

“Their medical care is significantly behind the rest of the world, especially for women,” said U.S. Navy Cmdr. Rex A. Kiteley, an International Security Assistance Force medical and reconstruction development officer.  “Females will only see female physicians and there is a scarcity of female physicians here. And that’s due to that fact that women’s education was put on hold during Taliban Era. You have women who could have went on to be physicians, but were held back.”

“If the Taliban Era never happened and women were allowed to receive education, she may have well been receiving the proper care,” added the Annapolis, Md., native. “If you don’t educate these young women, you are not going to have the kind of people you need to have this country move ahead. A country with medical care, is a more stable care.”

Kiteley took an interest into Naheed because her story is a familiar one—a story close to his heart. His mother was diagnosed with cancer over a year ago and sadly passed away while he was in Afghanistan.

“She reminds me of my mom,” said Kiteley. “My mom was an educator her entire life and that was important to her and I think meeting Naheed was right after that. I don’t think that was a coincidence. Naheed is a very special women, just like my mom.”

Naheed is scheduled to go to the National Cancer Institute Hospital in Bethesda Md., for radiation treatment. But, Kiteley said she still needs other kinds of treatment and he is working on it.

“There are two ways to look at it. What would happen if she stays here and what would happen if she goes for treatment in the States?” said Kiteley. “If she stays here, they could probably get her more chemotherapy in India. I don’t think she would get any other care and her cancer would continue to grow and cost her her life in a year or two.

“If she were able to get to the States as she is going to, the radiation will help relieve the pain in her lower hip because the cancer has spread to her bones there. What is most important is hormonal therapy. She will also need to have her left breast removed. If she were to receive that, hopefully she could live five to 10 years and maybe even longer. It is a similar situation to Sen. John Edward’s wife.”

If the treatments go well, Naheed has bright plans for the future. “I would like to go back to teaching,” said the strong-willed Naheed.

Because of women like Naheed, young women were educated even during the darkest times for her country. And hopefully with Kiteley’s help, she can get back to doing what she loves – being a light to the women of Afghanistan.

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