It’s a diagnosis that can feel more like a verdict, and across India’s metros, hospitals are starting to see that treating cancer is not just about treating cancer.
As the number of cancer-affected people rises, many are working to improve the patient’s quality of life while they proceed with treatment.
“Cancer patients go through a lot, physically and emotionally. It is important to devise measures that offer some relief to their minds,” says Dr PK Julka, radiation oncology expert at MaxHealthcare, Delhi. “It’s not just about treatment but how it’s administered. This could help change the treatment outcome in a positive way.”
So, hospitals are organising community events and rose-exchange days so patients can interact within a support group. They are also offering counselling workshops for patients and family members, to help them deal with the challenges, and holding group therapy sessions where survivors talk about how they made it through. The idea is to offer hope as well as care.
Earlier this month, MaxHealthcare opened a day-care chemotherapy centre to provide cancer patients with an ambience that would be more calming than the regular bustle of a hospital.
Counsellors and cancer survivors also conduct sessions here to help patients and family members deal with the diagnosis and the disease. The centre will also organise events to help them interact with and build a support system from among fellow patients.
At Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai, non-residents are offered accommodation close to the hospital, saving them the time and effort of commuting. The hospital has a special zone for cancer patients, allowing them easy entry and exit.
“A patient should feel like a guest. It is important to make him or her realise that this is a temporary phase,” says SH Advani, director of the Oncology department at Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre. “In counselling sessions with families, we guide them on how to deal with the disease and how to interact with the patient.”
In Delhi, the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute & Research Centre, released the Fiesta Cook Book in December, for children fighting cancer. It’s a nutrition guide to help parents plan meals for children with weakened immunity.
For the project, the hospital joined hands with celebrity chefs to invent tasty and healthy recipes that would appeal to children undergoing treatment and thereafter.
“Good nutrition is integral to successful treatment. The disease and its treatment affect a child’s appetite and the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Eating the right kinds of food before, during, and after treatment can help a child feel better and stay stronger,” says Dr Gauri Kapoor, director of paediatric haemato-oncology at the hospital.
For the patient and their family, the difference that a more holistic approach can make is remarkable.
Mumbai-based chartered accountant Forum Mehta, 25, for instance, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma five years ago. This form of cancer is characterised by the spread of the disease from one lymph node group to another, through the body.
“I was 20 and I thought my life was over,” Mehta says. “At this point, counselling sessions helped me learn to deal with the diagnosis and focus on recovery.”
Amid six cycles of chemotherapy, little things like regular discussions on diet helped, she says.
“It is a depressing phase. You really need an emotional boost,” Mehta adds. “Along with physical fatigue, I was breaking down emotionally as I was constantly associating cancer with death.”
The counselling she received at Mumbai’s PD Hinduja hospital, coupled with events they organised for cancer patients, such as flower-exchange days and musical nights, helped her change that outlook.
“Meeting the other patients was reassuring. I realised that I was not the only one and I felt less alone,” she says.
Today, Mehta is cancer-free and works as a finance manager with a multinational. She also helps cancer patients by talking to them about how to deal with the changes in their lives and their bodies as they undergo chemotherapy and fight the disease.
“Talking to patients is the best way to heal them. I want to help as others helped me,” she says.
GENTLY DOES IT
Along with devising ways to ease into the harsh treatment, hospitals are also trying to find ways to break the news of the diagnosis as gently as possible.
“Some people are afraid to do preventive checks, fearing a diagnosis of cancer,” says Anita Kumari, manager of counselling of New Delhi’s Action Cancer Hospital. “So once a person is diagnosed, I spend 30 minutes with each one helping him or her overcome anxiety. I also teach relaxing techniques and how to block negative thoughts.”
At Max, cancer survivors talk to patients to give them hope. Twice a week Radhika Manaktala, 53, spends a few hours at the MaxHealthcare day-care centre. “I know what these patients are going through. It is such a great feeling to know I can be of some help,” says the breast cancer survivor.
At Fortis Hospital, patient support groups meet once a month and are encouraged to practice yoga, dance and inspire each other to fight the disease through discussion sessions.
“We believe in adding life to years rather than years to life,” says consultant oncologist Anil Heroor.