Will I be killed by Israel or cancer?

Al-Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital, has come under Israeli bombardment in recent weeks. 

Atia Darwish APA images

Israel’s latest war on Gaza had begun and there were things I could not fathom.

I could not fathom that Israel could snatch away my life in a second with one of the F-16 warplanes in its arsenal.

It would be a few more days before Israel would kill my friend Yousef and his family.

In Gaza, you can be killed while drinking tea with people that you love. I knew the same thing could happen to me and my family.

The targeting of Yousef made me realize how little say we have in Gaza about whether we live or die.

I have stopped thinking about the future in the broad sense. I am concentrating on one thing: trying to avoid death from cancer.

On 9 October, I developed hyperthermia. My temperature soared as high as 41 degrees Celsius.

It felt like I was burning.

At first my mother put some wet towels on my forehead. But they were of no use.

My mother is a pediatrician, so is used to dealing with patients who have fever. Most of the time, temperatures will fall with time and some medication.

Mine didn’t.

I refused to go to al-Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital.

I felt embarrassed. I did not think my illness could be compared to the great suffering of people who had been rescued, bleeding, from the rubble or who were pierced by shrapnel.

I wasn’t going to show up with what I thought was a small problem.

After the fever continued unabated for a number of days, I simply had to go to the hospital. My mother came with me to al-Shifa.

In every inch of space we found a family sheltering, squeezing themselves into tiny self-made tents.

It was a real struggle to move from one building to another.

I had to do so. I needed to undergo tests.

Only a suspicion?

Thankfully, my fever had gone down from its peak, but the tests showed abnormally low platelets in my blood. The doctor mumbled a few words to my mother and urgently asked for a blood film.

My mother is always in a hurry and has a distinctive grin. She rarely cries.

But as we left the hospital to find a lab where the blood film could be done – as the Israelis bombed all around us – I could see that tears were running down her face.

“Mama, what is it?” I asked. “Should we go home? Are you tired?”

My mother replied, “Khaled, I’m crying because – based on your blood analysis – there is a high suspicion of cancer.”

I was stunned and had no idea what to say.

“Let’s hope that you have nothing,” my mother added. “It is only a suspicion.”

We needed to do the blood film as fast as possible, she emphasized.

We couldn’t find any lab to do it. There were none open.

Our last hope was the cancer department at the Rantisi hospital.

By then it was 8 PM. There were no cars in the street or electricity to light our way.

We decided to go on foot to the Rantisi hospital, but we could barely see our own feet.

So we just stopped in the street.

I didn’t care about the F-16s above us or the bombs all around us or feeling of the inevitability of death any second. I only cared about how to get my mother safely back home.

The hospital and the blood film could wait.

An ambulance approached. I hurried to ask the driver his destination.

He was going north and agreed to drop us at the end of al-Jalaa St.

Although that was 800 meters away from our home, getting an ambulance ride was better than being left to sleep in the open.

The driver drove very fast. We were all terribly frightened as we knew Israel had bombed ambulances.

When we reached the end of al-Jalaa St., the driver wished us a safe walk home and rushed off.

There was a faint moonlight which helped us a little in the darkness.

My mother grabbed my hand and we made our way along the sidewalk. The whole time, we could hear Israeli drones buzzing above us and we kept praying not to be bombed.

When we heard an F-16 approaching, we would recite the shahada, a declaration of faith Muslims make if they feel they are about to die.

But we were lucky. We arrived home safely and alive that night.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t sleep. One question kept haunting me: Do I really have cancer?

If I do, will I survive?


The next day, we went to the Rantisi hospital. We took my sisters’ phones to charge as we had no electricity.

When we got there, we began to charge the phones and went searching for a doctor who could do the blood film.

We were lucky enough to find someone we knew – Dr. Salah – in the hospital. He was just making a quick visit and about to leave.

But he went to the laboratory with my blood smear anyway.

While we were waiting for him to return, I asked my mother, “What if the suspicion is true? What will we do?”

My mother’s tired expression said it all. She didn’t know.

When Dr. Salah came out, he told her that he had seen blast cells in my blood. Following a complete blood count, he diagnosed me with leukemia.

I was aghast.

“One week ago, I was totally fine. I don’t get it,” I said with tears in my eyes. “What causes such a disease, Doctor?”

Dr. Salah spoke about a link between extreme stress and cancer. It was vital, he argued, that I get treatment promptly.

“Every minute that goes by without treatment weakens Khaled’s chance of being cured,” he told my mother.

He suggested that I go to the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital and gave me an emergency referral. Before leaving, Dr. Salah prayed for me and reassured me that everything would be fine.

Hospital bombed

The past six or seven weeks have been ghastly.

Israel bombed the Islamic University of Gaza, where I was studying.

It was my second home. My plans for a memorable graduation party and my hopes of becoming a graduate teaching assistant were destroyed.

Israel killed two of my best friends. All I have left of them are their pictures.

Israel killed 14 members of my extended family. I will not be able to share any more beautiful moments with them.

And now Israel is keeping me stuck in Gaza, unable to travel to receive treatment.

Israel bombed the Turkish-Palestinian Friendship Hospital while I and other cancer patients, many of them children or elderly, were receiving medical care.

Israel forced my family to evacuate our home in the Jabaliya area of Gaza and head south, leaving everything. We only took our phones, ID cards and passports.

We had to leave our beloved cat Tisha.

Israel forced me to walk for more than four hours, despite the pains that cancer has caused to my bones.

I had to walk in what Israel calls “a safe corridor,” although there were snipers positioned along the way.

Every night now, I get into bed carefully, my body aching.

And I ask this question: Who or what will kill me first?

Will it be the Israeli military?

Or will it be cancer?

Khaled El-Hissy is a journalist from Jabaliya in the Gaza Strip.