Why run a half marathon just 2 months after finishing breast cancer treatment – in Bethlehem?

Just two months after she'd finished chemotherapy for breast cancer, 49-year-old Su McClellan was taking part in a half marathon.

That's remarkable enough. But add the fact that the race was in Bethlehem, and there's definitely a story here.

The start of this year's Palestine Marathon.Palestine Marathon/Facebook

Su works for the charity Embrace the Middle East and in 2014 she was about to fly off to Bethlehem on a work trip. In the early hours of the morning before she left, she found a lump under her arm. On the way to the airport she made an appointment to see her doctor on her return. She spent the 10 days in Bethlehem wondering whether she had cancer.

When she came back she had a lumpectomy and six cycles of chemotherapy. A keen runner, she went out almost every day and always felt better for it.

But as she ran, she was also thinking. She'd visited the Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza, the coastal territory blockaded by Israel and Egypt where the economy is collapsing and every kind of resource is scarce. Doctors struggle to get basic supplies. Travel outside Gaza for medical treatment is severely restricted and can months to arrange.

In the UK, a woman diagnosed with breast cancer has an 87 per cent chance of being alive five years later.

In Gaza, it's 45 per cent.

Recalling her vist to the hospital, run by the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem, Su tells Christian Today: 'When I got there it was the shock of discovering that what we take for granted – like screening programmes – just don't exist.

'They have highly trained staff, so surgery isn't a problem – but every woman has to have a radical mastectomy, because there's no radiotherapy.

'It broke my heart, because I thought, if these women lived just a few miles up the coast there wouldn't be a problem.'

There are only eight mammography machines in the whole of Gaza, for a population of 2 million. Chemotherapy is a lottery as the drugs might be there for one cycle but due to the blockade they may not be available for the next. The same applies to Herceptin and hormone therapies like Tamoxifen. And – obviously – there's no such thing as breast reconstruction surgery after a mastectomy.

Before her own cancer, she'd been thinking about how she could help the women of Gaza through Embrace the Middle East, perhaps by developing self-awareness programmes. But, she says: 'My own diagnosis changed me. I decided to use what was happening to me.'

She entered the Palestine Half Marathon with her husband Craig and two other women to raise funds for breast cancer services at Al Ahli Hospital. She made him promise to get her out running no matter how bad she felt, and ran almost every day through her chemo – though she admits that some days she simply couldn't get out of bed and on others she ran like a 'tortoise'.

The race itself was on April 1, 2016, and she finished in two and a quarter hours. 'It was fine, the treatment finished on February 2 and my fitness came back pretty quickly,' she says. 'It was one of the most joyful things I've ever done.' They raised £13,500 between them.

Su McClellan ran the Palestine Half Marathon after recovering from breast cancer.

She's returning to Gaza in October to see the difference their contribution has made – but she also wants to continue to tell the story of the women of Gaza.

'When people hear "Gaza", they think of Hamas, bombs, rockets, all of that, and the ordinary people get forgotten,' she says. 'There are women – wives, daughters, sisters, mums – who are not able to get treatment because of the political situation.

'Undoubtedly the blockade is costing lives.'

The problems facing Gaza are huge, part of a decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestinians. But geo-politics aside, the people of Gaza face the same issues everyone else does, and have the same human griefs and fears. Su is hoping to run the London Marathon next year for the same cause. In the meantime, she urges support for the Christians of Gaza, who with the help of charities like Embrace – and people like her – are standing alongside those in the deepest need.

Embrace the Middle East is raising funds for Al Ahli Hospital in Gaza.