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Can soccer help kids kick cancer?

The Champions Academy for soccer is launching a section for children with cancer in an attempt to help them overcome their illness and boost their morale.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A new division at the Champions Academy for soccer hopes to help youngsters battle an especially tough opponent: cancer.

Boys who have been diagnosed with cancer are exercising and playing soccer despite their illness, body weakness and bald heads, under the supervision of coaches and doctors. They are preparing for a ceremony in early 2017 to officially inaugurate the academy's division for children with cancer.

“I want to forget about my illness, recover, practice my hobby, run and prove to everyone that I can do what ordinary children do," Osama al-Dairi, a 12-year-old diagnosed with leukemia, told Al-Monitor. "I am trying to be stronger than the disease and defeat it, just as my family and doctors told me and taught me.”

Dairi was full of life as he ran behind the ball on the academy’s soccer field. He said he is happy playing the game he loves.

The idea for the division came up Sept. 29 during the first Tamanna Awards Ceremony for children with cancer, which was held at Champions Academy in Tel al-Hawa and organized by El-Amal Rehabilitation Society, Basmat Amal Association for Cancer Care and Al-Haya Association for Cancer.

“The academy's goal is to integrate male children with cancer into the community and help them overcome their disease through [soccer],” academy board chairman Rajab Sarraj told Al-Monitor. “The academy has a significant role and social responsibility in the treatment and healing therapy of a number of patients.”

The academy consulted cancer specialists about the children's abilities to withstand physical effort. "They stressed the importance of physical activity as a crucial way to face the illness and [as part of their] treatment," Sarraj said. "Once the academy announced that registration was open for children with cancer, parents rushed to register their children.”

A number of studies, most recently one by the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg in 2015, have indicated that regular physical activity is very beneficial during cancer treatment and helps to ease symptoms of the treatments. It may also reduce the risk of cancer spreading (metastasizing) following surgery or chemotherapy, according to the study.

Some 300 children of ages 6-14 are registered at the academy for a monthly fee of 120 shekels ($35), which covers their sports uniforms, accessories and transportation fees. There are also 30 children afflicted with cancer registered for free and 16 employees, including physicians, psychologists and sociologists, as well as the administration staff.

Hassan Skaik, the academy’s general director, told Al-Monitor, “The academy, in addition to its focus on sports, seeks to develop entertainment programs, concerts, cultural competitions and learning courses, and to grant high achievers in various fields awards and prizes. This is added to the trips to several tourist and entertainment sites inside and outside Palestine, in collaboration with different institutions.”

Al-Monitor toured the academy while coach Hossam al-Najjar was guiding children in soccer training and exercises.

"Patients’ integration with healthy kids is an important and necessary part of the treatment," he said, adding that a doctor selects children for the program and determines their exercise regimens based on their physical abilities and endurance. The doctor supervises and follows up on the training.

In the same vein, public relations director at Basmat Amal Association for Cancer Care Sami Haboush told Al-Monitor, “Physical exercise has a significant impact on cancer treatment. It boosts the children’s self-confidence as they equate their ability to exercise with that of healthy children. It strengthens their willpower to battle and overcome their disease.”

He added, “The idea of a [soccer] academy for children with cancer is a good idea requiring its [leaders] to take into account the children’s psychological, physiological and physical needs when selected and during the training. This can happen through the communication with cancer care institutions, psychologists and sociologists, since they are best to deal with them.”

Nabil Awaja, sports clubs director general for the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, concurred. “We encourage such pioneer projects, given their role in improving human health and the role of physical exercise in [treating] cancer, especially childhood cancer," he told Al-Monitor. He also pointed out the importance of integrating the children into the community "and allowing them to show their skills and abilities, prove themselves and challenge the way society perceives them.”

Among Palestinians with cancer in 2014, 6.1% were children under the age of 15, according to a statement released in early 2016 by the Palestinian Health Information Center at the Health Ministry. Leukemia was the most common type among Palestinian children.