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A look at the challenges faced by cancer patients

Cancer patients without the right resources at their disposal find beating the disease doubly hard. Some refuse treatment due to lack of information, while others are under-diagnosed or abandoned by family

At first, Sharada Yadav declines to speak to us. Between running her own beauty parlour and taking care of her family, the 32-year-old Andheri resident has no time to spare for anyone. But it is her third – and biggest – responsibility that really occupies her days and her mind. She is currently playing caretaker to her 29-year-old sister and cancer patient, Sakshi, who is battling for her life at a Bandra-based hospice.

Cancer survivors opine that society should change its attitude towards them. Illustration/Amit Bandre
Cancer survivors opine that society should change its attitude towards them. Illustration/Amit Bandre

Sakshi was diagnosed with ovarian cancer more than three years ago. When doctors informed her that her ovaries will have to be removed, she flatly refused to undergo the surgery. A young man, who encouraged her decison and promised marriage, is no longer in the picture.

Talking about it makes Sharada’s voice quiver. “Sakshi used to ask what is the point of living if you can’t have children. But she deeply regrets her decision today,” she says.

'School said cancer is contagious'
According to a recent newspaper report, which cited statistics by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, India had 1.8 million people living with cancer (within five years of diagnosis) in 2012. Roughly a million new cases were recorded that year and about 6,83,000 deaths due to cancer were registered. In the report, doctors also cautioned that several cases either went undetected or under-diagnosed.

Twenty-three year old Aditi Mehra is a case in point. The daughter of a retired mill worker and a domestic help, Mehra found a lump below her left ear in 2008. The first doctor she met dismissed it as normal before removing it. When the lump reappeared, the neighbourhood nursing home gave Mehra three months’ worth of medicines for tuberculosis. This, predictably, worsened her condition. “My knees starting paining very badly and I couldn’t even go to the toilet. But the doctors said it was normal,” recalls Mehra. Much later, a biopsy report diagnosed her with blood cancer. Mehra was still a teenager.

The full impact of the news hit her only at the Parel-based TATA Memorial Hospital, where she was gently informed that one of the effects of chemotherapy was hair loss. “I cried and kept thinking, ‘How am I going to go out?’. I bought a wig from a shop in Dadar, but I found the experience so strange. I had to wear it even at home as we had a lot of guests. It was so heavy and hot !” Today, after having successfully beaten cancer, Mehra wants to highlight the importance of awareness and timely treatment. “Society is quick to write a cancer patient’s obituary. Logon ko apni soch badalni chahiye (people should change their ideas),” she says.

People’s ‘soch’ was something that bothered Palghar-based Smita Sharma every time she was denied admission to a school on the grounds that ‘cancer is contagious’, or people taunted her about her baldness by calling her ‘takli’. Sharma was 10 when she was diagnosed with blood cancer. “I was a good student but schools didn’t accept me and asked me how am I going to sit with other kids with my bald head. If you don’t have the right kind of support, cancer survivors’ lives just screech to a halt. I completely stopped going out and even contemplated suicide,” says Sharma.

Today, however, thanks to the efforts of organisation Yeshwant Vidyapeeth, the 28-year-old is a BCom student at a college in Palghar and hopes to help cancer patients herself, someday.

Awareness is key
For 24-year-old Bandra resident Harsh Khetan, who was diagnosed with blood cancer four years ago, one of the first casualties of the disease was his love life. “Girls run for the door when you say you are a cancer survivor,” says Khetan, who works at advertising agency. “It is just so hard to have a normal dating life.”

For some, being married was no consolation either. Kharghar-based Rakhi Mishra was abandoned by her husband of five years while undergoing treatment for cancer. “He dumped me at my mother’s house and refused to pay for treatment, calling me handicapped,” said Mishra, who was diagnosed with bone cancer in her right leg. Thanks to a hospitality course organised by a city NGO, the spunky 28-year-old restaurant cook today earns a living by standing on her feet for almost 6 hours.

Doctors unanimously agree that nothing should stop cancer survivors from living a life of their choice. Kochi-based Dr.V.P.Gangadharan, one of the leading oncologists in the country explains that cancer survivors should be called ‘cancer winners’ as they are “not just surviving”. “If they are healthy for five years after treatment, their chance of being diagnosed with cancer again is as good as anyone else’s. They will have absolutely no issues in leading a normal life,” he emphasises. A doctor from the Hematolymphoid unit of TATA hospital agrees. “With the help and care of support groups and counselors, there is nothing that stops them from moving ahead in life,” she points out.

*Names have been changed on request

A match made online
Insightmatrimony.com, a Kerala-based matrimonial website for cancer patients (though not exclusively for them) was launched early this year by the youth arm of a church. “My friend and cousin had cancer but they are okay now. But when it comes to marriage, people go away. I know so many other people in the same situation, which is why we started the site,” explains one of the brains behind the website, Mithun chacko Thomas. Plans are currently underway to expand the website, which will begin functioning in 10 to 15 days, to include blog testimonials and online counseling sessions as well.

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