As the city’s medical system grapples with the scourge of cancer sans infrastructure or leadership, and the exodus to Mumbai and Chennai continues unabated, a glimmer of hope for the stricken and their kin seems to be streaking through at last.
The Cancer Foundation of India (CFI) — a voluntary, charitable organisation of committed doctors, researchers, public health specialists and social activists from all over the country — promises to fill in the blank that exists in cancer, in terms of public health, education, manpower development, research and patient support.
“CFI will strive to make a difference to lives before and after cancer, by raising awareness on the causes of the disease and investing in preventive research and psycho-oncology. These are areas that are largely neglected, since everyone is concentrating only on treatment,” says foundation chairman Maqsood Siddiqi, a cancer scientist and former director of Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute.
The foundation kicks off on November 8 with a telephone helpline in Calcutta. “It won’t be just about diagnosis and treatment, but also about protection, since once the symptoms appear, the battle is lost,” Siddiqi adds. The service will operate from 10 am to 10 pm, Monday through Friday.
The helpline, which will be replicated in other major cities eventually, will provide information on causes, detection and treatment of cancer over the phone, in print and through e-mail on request. It will also provide clinical guidance and subsidised anti-cancer drugs to needy patients through CFI’s member networks.
“West Bengal doesn’t have adequate facilities to deal with the burgeoning cancer burden, and even the meagre resources are completely disorganised,” observes radiation oncologist Kumar Tapash Bhowmik, head of the department of radiotherapy, Safdarjung Hospital, New Delhi, a member of the CFI governing body.
“To stop the exodus from Bengal and to provide leadership, we must first raise the confidence of the people in the system. The initial step towards this goal should be spreading awareness on the causes of the disease and offer advice on necessary lifestyle alterations. Years down the line, we should be in a position to fund research,” feels Bhowmik.
Apart from the helpline, the other thrust areas of CFI will be development of facilities for early detection of cancer, dissemination of knowledge and informative material on the disease, and training of radio-oncologists and medical physicists for cancer diagnosis and advanced radiotherapy.
“It is extremely important to impart technical training to create quality manpower, since this is a huge grey area in cancer management in West Bengal. We need highly qualified personnel to administer chemotherapy and radiotherapy to patients, and CFI will provide the necessary expertise,” says Anjali Mookerjee, director of Asutosh Mookerjee Memorial Institute and former dean of environmental studies, JNU, also on the foundation governing body.
Mookerjee, a scientist working on the environmental effects leading to cancer, agrees with Siddiqi on the urgent need to improve awareness on causes to combat cancer. “We are training volunteers to work in the villages and the fringe areas of the city. They will talk about the ill-effects of day-to-day pollution like using wood and charcoal for cooking, which can harm the lungs. The idea is not to spread alarm, but to arm them with knowledge,” she adds.
CFI also plans to work on target projects like controlling cancer in women in West Bengal and tobacco-related cancers. “The foundation acknowledges that we have special problems to cope with. For instance, breast cancer in India is at least 10 years younger than in the West. The tumours are very often pre-menopausal and grow very aggressively. We need dedicated research to address these special problems,” observes Bhowmik.