Three days per week, a group of women gather at a sport center in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya for aerobic classes. The aim of the sessions is not to lose weight and build stamina, but to reduce the harmful effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy and to ease cancer-related fatigue.
The exercises are part of a rehabilitation program for female cancer patients at Hiwa Cancer Hospital, the only specialized cancer facility in northern Iraq's Kurdistan region. All the women involved have undergone painful cancer treatments and some have had breasts removed.
Most have suffered from tiredness and psychological distress due to the disease. "I had both of my breasts removed," said 66-year-old cancer patient Nisreen Abdullah, who has attended the three hour-long classes each week for the last three months.
She says the workouts have helped her feel much better. "I wish that all the patients would come here to improve their health," Abdullah said. The aerobic sessions began four years ago after an agreement between the hospital and a local gym owner, Farah Mawared.
The aim was to provide physical training for cancer patients who completed chemotherapy treatment. Since then, about 120 women have taken part in the classes, according to Mawared and Shwan Ali Tawfeeq, who works as a hematologist-oncologist at the hospital.
"Sport is very important in improving the psychological condition of the patients as many of them experience anxiety, fear and depression," Tawfeeq said. One patient, who gave her name as Kulthum, said her right breast was removed after she was diagnosed with cancer about five years ago.
She was subjected to several chemotherapy doses, she said, and underwent laser photo-radiation. "A friend told me about this center," said Kulthum. "She advised me to go and so I did ... I really benefited a lot from these exercises."