His resolve is written large on his face. Pankaj Yadav, 18, has made it to the Indian Institute of Technology (BHU)-Varanasi, overcoming his handicap of losing an eye to cancer 13 years ago.
In doing so, this cancer survivor has set an example for hundreds of others like him who have fought off the dreaded disease. The National Society for Childhood Cancer and Cankids...Kidscan have committed to supporting his family to meet his higher education costs of Rs.400,000 over four years and are seeking donors to help him.
"When I lost an eye at the age of five, no one imagined that I would go far in academics," said Yadav, a resident of Haryana whose father is a constable in the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force.
"Even when I started my preparations for the IIT entrance exam, not many of my peers believed that I would crack it," said the survivor of retinoblastoma eye cancer, who sports a plastic left eye.
Sushila Devi, Pankaj's mother, is all praise for her son's courage. "It is a miracle. After his fight against cancer, our middle class family had little hope of his making it big. But Pankaj made it through IIT and MBBS entrance."
"Now, after his IIT course he should serve others like him who have overcome adversity," she said.
Pankaj's younger sister, Mamata, 14, is in Class 10. "I will try to do something like him," she said.
The IIT-entrant was among the 23 cancer patients and survivors who were recently honoured by Cankids in New Delhi with scholarships under the 6th Annual National Childhood Cancer Scholarship Programme 2013. Over 830 child cancer patients and survivors, aged 5 to 21, from 24 cancer hospitals across the country had applied for the scholarships. The programme was hosted in association with Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, New Delhi.
"Twenty-three children were given cash awards, citations and trophies in different categories. But every cancer fighter who applied is being given a medal and certificate. We are sending them to the hospitals to hold small ceremonies and award all the participants," Cankids education officer Tannu Sharma said.
Among the awardees was Aman Saxena, who is fighting a nose and throat cancer relapse.
The second year BA student from Delhi's Shaheed Bhagat Singh College won the KCK Cancer Awareness and Social Contribution Award for pioneering work through his Jasba Theatre group.
"It was an honour to get the scholarship. Hopefully, it will take me closer to my dream of meeting (singer) Kailash Kher," said Aman, who himself was a good singer till his voice started fading due to his ailment.
Amita Mahajan, senior consultant (Paediatric Hematology and Oncology), Indraprastha Apollo Hospital and chairman of Cankids Medical Advisory, said: "The programme was an occasion to recognise the indomitable courage and bravery of children suffering from cancer who have either survived the disease or are still undergoing treatment."
"It was also a platform to motivate and encourage those children who have fought cancer and emerged as winners," she added.
Nearly 50,000 new cases of childhood cancers are reported in the country every year. The common features among these are acute lymphocytic, leukemia, brain tumor, bone tumor and tumor of bone and kidney. The cause of many cancers is unknown, but most childhood cancers are far more curable than adult cancers.
Awareness about cancer in children has picked up but needs to grow more. "This leads to early diagnosis. Today we can cure more than 70 percent of all cancers in children. The survival of cancer-affected children is improving in the country and we are catching up with the developed nations, where survival rates are as high as 95 percent," Mahajan said.
Iksha Kumari, a nine-year-old girl undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer at MCS Patna, was also among the scholarship winners. She scored 99 percent in Class 1 even while undergoing treatment. She was awarded the Yoginder Kishen Agnihotri Scholarship for Academic Excellence in the junior category.
Leela Agnihotri, who has instituted three of the 16 scholarships in memory of her parents, her husband and her son, said: "Honouring the bravery and courage of the children who have excelled even as they battle their cancer is the most fitting tribute to my family, especially my husband who recently died of cancer."
Kapil Chawla, Awareness Advocacy Officer of Cankids, said: "The scholarships for supporting education of cancer patients and survivors are aimed at showing to other patients that they too can become role models for other little bravehearts."