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Surviving apathy

india Updated: Apr 21, 2009 23:15 IST

A few years ago, I read the words, ‘I am a cancer survivor and I vote!’ on a car sticker in the US, part of an awareness campaign launched by the Coalition of Cancer Survivorship. What are the rights of people with cancer? Can an argument be made for the launch of a similar campaign in India?

These rights ensure the dignity of all citizens, and include the right to livelihood, equal treatment and access to affordable medical care. A victory for cancer survivors in the US was the inclusion of cancer under the Disabilities Act, ensuring that people with cancer weren’t discriminated against.

In India, there is no protection against discrimination for people living with cancer. They are at the mercy of misinformed employers, rapacious insurance companies and bigots. Consequently, the victory for those of us who have survived cancer continues to be a Pyrrhic one.

It is a matter of regret that many young survivors in India find it difficult to get back to school or find a job, despite evidence that they make the most conscientious employees and are rarely absent from work; perhaps because they have something to prove. When it comes to marriage, too, the stigma of a cancer diagnosis is unrelenting, and securing adequate health and life insurance is a source of worry for the survivor. Ironically, even private institutions that float insurance schemes are discriminatory — the premise being that to be eligible you must never have had cancer.

According to official estimates, there are 2.5 million people with cancer in India, with 1.1 million being added every year. The World Health Organisation warns of a steep rise in the incidence of cancer in the coming decades in emerging economies like India. Can we cope with this alarming situation?

Today, there are less than 30 Regional Cancer Centres in the country, with the majority in metros. These centres do not offer comprehensive cancer treatment as they lack facilities for supportive or palliative care. The emphasis is on medical treatments alone, which can neither ensure length nor quality of life. Research has shown that only a combination of the right information and guidance, timely access to treatments and emotional support at all stages of cancer can ensure the best outcomes.

Harmala Gupta is founder president of CanSupport, New Delhi.