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When did you last help a stranger?

It's tough to imagine Delhi's tough-as-nails Chief Minister Shiela Dixit as a star-stuck young woman. And it's completely unimaginable to think of her wanting to be like her favourite Bollywood actress. Sanchita Sharma writes.

columns Updated: Mar 09, 2013 22:46 IST

It's tough to imagine Delhi's tough-as-nails Chief Minister Shiela Dixit as a star-stuck young woman. And it's completely unimaginable to think of her wanting to be like her favourite Bollywood actress. "I wanted to be Nargis Dutt. She was our heroine. We all wanted to be Nargis Dutt," said Dikshit at The Nargis Dutt Memorial Charitable Trust's fundraiser in Delhi this week.

Nargis Dutt died of pancreatic cancer in 1981. She was 51. "We were there by her side, but her pain was her own," said her daughter and Congress MP and Priya Dutt about her mother's final battle against cancer.

The Nargis Dutt Memorial Trust ( ) was set up the same year by her husband Sunil Dutt. The germ for a foundation to help the poor in India who could not afford treatment was planted by Nargis from her hospital bed in New York.

Why I'm writing about this Trust and not the many thousands like it is because every rupee donated is goes to charity, be it to buy life-saving medicines, diagnostic equipment or technology-transfer and upgrading hospitals in rural areas to help cancer patients in need. The salaries and administrative costs of running the Trust are borne by the Dutt family. The Trust has now diversified to education, including vocational training (computer courses, adult-literacy classes, suicide-prevention support) and scholarships for poor students who cannot afford school.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins argues that we must "try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish". Helping friends and family doesn't count because it involves reciprocity and anyway, since family shares your genes, helping them is just another way of preserving a part of you. This, says Dawkins, makes evolutionary sense since helping someone without any return does nothing to help you live and prosper.

That's why we all need to occasionally remind ourselves to do altruistic deeds with no expectation of reciprocity. Donating to charity, supporting a child go to school, or caring for the sick and elderly are just some of the many ways to do it.

Helping people with cancer is one way to start. Going by the numbers alone, we appear to be losing the war on cancer. In India, 9.79 lakh new cancer cases diagnosed in 2010, with the disease killing around 6 lakh annually. Two in three people are diagnosed in the advanced stages, which lowers their chances of survival. Going by the present trends, these numbers are projected to rise to 12 lakh by 2020.

With ageing populations, unhealthy diets and rising tobacco and alcohol use, these numbers are growing. And lifestyle plays a big role. Worldwide, lung cancer accounts for 14% of all cancers, but it's lower at 6.8% in India because fewer people smoke tobacco. But since chewing tobacco is popular, India has the highest numbers of oral cancers in the world.

Traditional Asian diets that favour fresh foods has led to 25 and 10 times lower incidences of prostate and breast cancers, respectively, among them as compared to the West, but the rates of these cancers go up when Asians migrate to the West or adopt a "western" lifestyle.

One in three of all cancer deaths are due to the five lifestyle risk behaviours: obesity, high salt-low fruit and vegetable intake, physical inactivity, tobacco and alcohol use. Across the world, a woman dies of cancer each minute. Factor in just the top two cancers in women and you'll realise that many of these deaths are avoidable - the cancer of cervix is vaccine-preventable, and the cancer that of the breast is curable, especially when detected in the early stages.

Compared to most other diseases, cancer treatment is long, tortuous and expensive, with one in three persons ending up with depression. But now with the Mississippi baby bringing hope of an AIDs cure, a cure for cancer may not be as impossible as believed. Already, new targeted therapies and drugs combinations are helping people who can afford treatment survive. This is where you can volunteer to help and make it possible for thousands more to beat cancer.

First Published: Mar 09, 2013 22:41 IST