WORLD CANCER DAY:How cancer is killing people in resource-starved Kashmir
Srinagar: He was a perfectly healthy, ever-smiling, a workaholic, who would single-handedly manage a workload of 10 people. His friends would joke that he was a “robot”, who never showed any signs of fatigue. However, last year in June, the world turned upside down for Ghulam Mohammad Sofi, a 48-year-old trader from Chadoora, Budgam. He was detected with stage 4 Lung cancer. With sullen eyes and a resigned voice, his elder brother, Ghulam Mohiudin, recalls, “One day he returned late from his shop. He complained of pain in the chest area. We dismissed it just as a symptom of cold or a mild chest-infection.” The pain intensified the next day. His family took him to Chest Diseases Hospital, Drugjan Dalgate. They prescribed medicines but to no avail. A month dragged on with no improvement in his condition. “One of my friends suggested we take him to an oncologist. We visited Dr Zaid who lives in our neighbourhood. He examined him and immediately raised an alarm advising us to shift him to Regional Cancer Centre, SKIMS.” After several rounds of check-up, he was put on chemo-therapy. From SKIMS, he was referred to Cancer Society of Kashmir. The chemotherapy doses burnt a hole in the pockets of the family, reducing them almost to penury. They claimed to have spent about two lakhs on his treatment till now. “I am staying with him from the last eight months. Our family spent all the savings on him. We are trying out best with whatever little we can manage to bring him back to health.” Mohidin said with a sigh. Sofi lies still on the hospital bed. His sunken eyes lie fixed on the door, expecting his wife to pay him a visit. Tears stream down in barely restrained grief down the tired face of Ghulam Mohidin. He has to put up a brave face every day and pretend that everything is rosy and right: “We have not told his wife about the deadly ailment he is suffering from, else God forbid she will harm herself.” Another patient, Mohammad Mukhtar Parray, a peasant from Hajin area of Bandipora, stands listlessly in a queue, waiting to get registered. He has been detected with a colon cancer. “I have undergone two surgeries. They cost me around 2-2.5 lakh. My health is failing with each passing day, and I can’t afford any further treatment,” he said. Mukhtar had to board four vehicles in order to reach Cancer Society. He hopes to see a doctor and asks everyone around to pray for him. These are hardly isolated cases. Rather, this is the norm in the OPD ward at the ‘Cancer society of Kashmir’, which receives around 40 cancer patients in a day. Most of them are usually from the lower strata of the society, who can barely afford the prohibitive cost of cancer treatment. The centre is an accurate reflection of the extent of the explosion of the menace of cancer in the state, and the lack of readiness to fight it. Official statics show that 26,214 patients have been reported as suffering from cancer since 2011. Against such a massive onslaught, facilities including the Center seem woefully inadequate. The ward at the Center has three beds, and a handful of staff members to cater to a large number of patients. Admitting the dearth, the senior medical staffer Abdul Khaliq blamed the “minimal wages” and “government’s unwillingness to upgrade the private sector.” “Government should take cognisance of the increasing number of cancer patients and likewise upgrade the infrastructure especially in the private sector,” said Khaliq. “We are the only NGO who is trying to reach out to a many cancer patients as we can,” he added. On inquiring why the doctor’s ward is empty today given the huge inflow of patients, another staffer revealed, “Only two doctors come here voluntarily two days a week.” “They come on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Nobody wants to works for free or low wages. Where will we get doctors every-day for their examination?” the executive officer of the NGO, GN Manto, asks. The cancer society in collaboration with patients and palliative care at SKIMS provide free medical assistance to cancer patients in the region. “Our team provides palliation to patients in last stages of cancer every Tuesday and Thursday,” said Mantoo. The centre, however, has no psychologists or counsellors to equip patients with any means to fight the trauma and pain. Dr Sameer Kaul, Senior Consultant Surgical and Clinical Oncology at Apollo Cancer Institute New Delhi, notes the scale of devastation that cancer induces: “Cancer doesn’t only impact the patient, but also the caretakers and family of the patient. The pain at watching an able body wither helplessly is compounded by depression, and grief. Ultimately the maintenance of social and economic makeup of the society depends upon a healthy body. Its destruction devastates everyone.” He also believes health insurance should be acquired on priority, as most patients who travel to Delhi for treatment are left penniless by the exorbitant cost. Dr Maqbool Lone, Head Radiation and Oncology at SKIMS believes that this trend will be reversed soon. The government of India after many deliberations approved upgrading RCC SKIMS to State Cancer Institute (SCI) and allotted Rs 120 crores to upgrade its Infrastructure and buy the machinery.” Already the PET-CT facility has been started at the centre, and many more projects like Linear Accelerator are in the pipeline. The patients wait in pain and hopelessness; one hopes the upgradation will occur lest their death warrants be signed.