Surviving cancer

Cancer is a dreaded word in anyone’s life. It is something which we wouldn’t wish to even our enemies. But wishes are usually wistful thinking, as this malignant, sometimes fatal disease, accounts for around 2.5 million patients in India with over seven lakh new cases every year.

Surviving cancer

Rashi Mathur

Cancer is a dreaded word in anyone’s life. It is something which we wouldn’t wish to even our enemies. But wishes are usually wistful thinking, as this   malignant, sometimes fatal disease, accounts for around 2.5 million patients in India with over seven lakh new cases every year. However, advanced treatments and an indomitable spirit have helped many a brave heart to beat cancer and courageously overcome associated physical and emotional changes.

“When I was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014, my first question was: how much time do I have,” shares Gulshan Kumar Vohra, retired PGT, Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan. He was shaken when he was told he had only one year left. However, if he underwent surgery, he could live for perhaps another five years. After sessions of chemo therapy, he was operated upon and a part of his rectum removed. “It is the fourth year now of my new life. Doctors say there is nothing to worry. But I have to get the recommended tests done and observe precautions. I cannot spend more than five hours outside home and if I have to stay out for a long time, I have to skip a meal. However, these hardships seem small when you are blessed with a new day every day,” he says.

For Minakshi Chaudhry, a social worker and an author, detection of breast cancer at stage four in 2008 was an obvious nightmare. “With family support and right treatment, one can fight cancer even if diagnosed at the fourth stage. My treatment is over now. I may have it again, who knows, but the worst fear that something terrible may happen to me, has no longer the power to scare me,” says Minakshi. She has penned down her fight to conquer this near-fatal disease in her book, Sunshine: My Encounter with Cancer. 

For Kiran Thapa, a homemaker and mother of an 18-year old boy, this dreaded disease started in 2014 with a mild chest pain. When she went for check-up, she was diagnosed with second-stage breast cancer. “I was living alone with my son as my husband was in the Army. The news came during a particularly bad period, as a week ago, my sister-in-law had passed away in a road accident,” she says. She had to undergo operation. Chemo therapy sessions followed after the surgery. “It has been almost four years now and I am completely fine. I have to go for check up every six months. However, winning this battle against cancer has made me very positive towards life,” shares Kiran.

Sunita Kapur is undergoing the sixth stage of chemo therapy. “I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November 2012. I was told that I have four to five years left. I have crossed almost five years and what keeps me going is helping other cancer patients,” shares this brave fighter. 

Giving back to society

Nearly a decade ago, Minakshi set up SEWA Trust with the help of few friends. The NGO organises public discussions on social issues, holds career counselling sessions for students and welfare work in areas of public health, education, environment and awareness. Two years ago, it started Khushi, a day-care centre for elderly women at Solan. 

Sunita is working for an NGO, Cansupport. Currently based at NCR, the NGO started in Amritsar last year. It holds campaigns to make women aware about ovarian cancer, provides financial aid to the underprivileged cancer patients and does pain management counselling for care givers.  

Survival skills

Sunita is often asked how she faces death every day. Her mantra, “All men are mortal and I believe in the finite nature of life.”

 “I live each day. The moment cancer is diagnosed, a person succumbs to guilt and concludes that it is a result of some wrongful deed they must have done. One should never let such thoughts take control,” advises Minakshi. 

Gulshan found the courage to fight by sharing his fears. “A cancer patient needs support and will power. Read about experiences of cancer survivors and share your fears with consultants or family members,” says Gulshan.


Evolving techniques

Breast cancers are usually hereditary. A recent study by Strand Life Sciences, a bioinformatics and genomic profiling firm, has suggested that genetic testing can help identify the right therapy for cancer through genomic testing and understand the risk of inheriting cancer. “Though cancer cases are rising in India, tests and treatments for the disease have also been evolving. Many progressive technologies such as liquid biopsy and genomic testing are easily available,” says Dr Vijay Chandru, managing director, Strand Life Sciences. Last year, LDG India introduced a new technique in India, called immunotherapy with dendritic cells, devised by a German oncologist, Dr Frank Gansuage.

In genetic testing, genomic alterations in a sample can be identified through next generation sequencing. Detecting these alterations yields a complete picture of the cancer. With this information, an oncologist can personalise treatment and improve treatment outcomes. This test can work for lung, breast and colon cancers. It can also tell about the probability of the cancer being inherited. 

A liquid biopsy is used to find evidence of cancer in blood. A blood sample is taken and traces of tumour DNA are released into the blood from dying cancer cells and can be detected by sensitive digital technologies. This DNA test can give valuable and accurate information about the presence of changes in cancer-specific genes (also known as mutations). 

Immunotherapy with dendritic cells can help in cases of skin, kidney, breast, pancreatic, colon, ovarian and prostate cancers (except blood cancer). A vaccination is made from patient's blood and infused in the body. It can boost their immunity and help in curing the disease naturally. One dendritic-cell-rich dose takes one week to process. Patient can take the vaccination while taking chemotherapy; it will minimise the side effects and help patient live a routine life.


Preventive tips

  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight throughout life. For those who are overweight or obese, losing even a small amount of weight has major health benefits. Limit intake of high-calorie foods and drinks. 
  •  Adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week spread over five or six days. For kids and teens, at least one hour of moderate or vigorous exercise is recommended at least three days a week.
  • Eat more plant foods. Limit processed and red meat. Eat at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits each day. Consume whole grains instead of refined grain products.
  • Limit alcohol intake. Drink no more than one drink per day for women or two per day for men.

— Guidelines by the American Cancer Society


EXPERT advice: Opt for Palliative care at last stage

The last stage means the cancer has spread to other parts of the body. “The disease becomes difficult to treat and can't be cured in the long term. However, regular treatment can help in controlling the cancer. Palliative care for such patients helps relieve them from the symptoms and improve the quality of life. It helps in managing the pain, alleviate the family and patient's stress,” says Dr Anitha Arockiasamy, president, India Home Health Care, a healthcare centre that cures terminally-ill patients. 

Dr Swarupa Mitra, Chief of Gastrointestinal and Genitourinary Radiation Oncology, Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Centre, agrees, “Palliative management and good medical support help make the patient's journey comfortable and peaceful.” 

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