This month I was privileged to attend the fifth conference of the Middle East Cancer Consortium (MECC) in Larnaca, Cyprus, that brought together health care professionals from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt.
They meet every year on the neutral ground of Cyprus to explore the best ways to alleviate suffering of cancer victims. It's inspiring. Universal empathy for the ill and the dying breaks through political walls and overpowers religious and cultural divisions. The language of the conference is of compassion, solidarity and human decency, not of ideological, cultural and religious differences. It calls for hope where desperation rules, for building bridges to common ground.
The representatives from the United States and Israel described the most recent advances in palliative care, whereas a nurse from Bethlehem, now governed by the Palestinian Authority, exalted the role of the extended family as the most reliable companion of the dying during their final journey. This familiarity with death, all but vanished in more technological countries, produces a unique appreciation of the gifts of life and of the sacredness of each person endowed with a special mission for which no machine can stand in.
All the participants learned some secrets of complementary medicine, including touch therapy, transcendental meditation and imagery, which don't require resources beyond people committed to their practice.
During the MECC meeting I had an epiphany of redemption as the most rewarding life experience. In ancient Israel, the redeemer was the family member who prevented the enslavement of a man and his family by paying his debt. MECC participants, too, were proud to redeem somebody else's debts. By helping each other to soothe a pain they had not caused, they found a mission, a meaning in their own life.
As an American, I am proud that MECC is the brainchild of former President Bill Clinton, who through the National Cancer Institute empowered Dr. Michael Silbermann to develop this thriving initiative. Silbermann is a U.S.-trained visionary Israeli surgeon, who has devoted his life to the cure and the care of cancer in Israel and its neighbors.
I also had an unexpected revelation about Islam. Most of the representatives from Islamic countries were women — physicians, psychologists or nurses with advanced training. All had trained in the United States and would have been able to pursue a highly paid and rewarding career in America.
Instead, they elected to go back to their own countries. They were very assertive advocates of cancer patients under their care and of the families participating in the ordeal of cancer treatment.
Some of these women were proud to wear a head scarf and dress that prevented even an occasional sight of their ankles; some of them refused, very politely, to shake hands with men. Despite their close observance of Islamic customs, these women could have not presented a better role model of free, assertive and effective professionals.
They did not seem to miss the freedom of fashion and of sexual behavior enjoyed in the Western world. It seemed that the very constraints that prevented them from experimenting with different lifestyles focused them instead on a more substantial freedom, the liberty to pursue activities that filled their lives with meaning.
If there is such a thing as a universal good, real freedom consists in finding a reliable guide to this good. I have not forgotten 9/11, nor the humiliation and the harassment that women, and men and even children have suffered in fundamentalist Islamic countries. I am a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and oppose very firmly any threat to our constitutional rights.
But in the name of the freedom of speech I cherish, I must say that my encounters with these successful professional women from Arab countries made me feel that the pride for our freedom is somehow misplaced.
Sometimes we enshrine as freedom the ability to act without a goal — simply to do what we want. In that case, the success of our democratic system was best explained by the Cheshire Cat, who told Alice in Lewis Carroll's masterpiece: "When you don't know where you are going, every road will take you there."
Dr. Lodovico Balducci is a professor of oncology and medicine at the University of South Florida College of Medicine and is director, Division of Geriatric Oncology, at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center.