Combating cancer with a humane touch
He is almost in tears when I ask him to describe his personal involvement in the Rotary Cancer Research Foundation run by his club, Rotary Club of Madras Midtown, RID 3232. This is a signature project of the club that had seen close involvement of the club’s stalwarts such as the late Habibullah Badsha and Kailashmal Dugar, who was president in 1995 when the project was started. The same year Dr C S Ramachandran, also a member of the club, was the district governor.
Its present managing trustee Shankar Duraiswamy, while giving me details about the project takes pains to explain that it’s not so much the money that this foundation spends on cancer patients — about ₹6 to 7 lakh a year — but the caring, involvement and persistent follow-up that those involved give to the patients that makes this project so special.
He explains that the foundation was “started with the objective of giving financial help to poor people afflicted with cancer to undergo treatment. It was decided that those patients who opt to go for high-cost treatment will not be helped by us. We will help only those who choose low-cost treatment options, government hospitals and the Cancer Institute, Adyar, Chennai, and that too only to the extent possible,” he says.
It’s not the money that this foundation spends on cancer patients but the caring, involvement and persistent follow-up that those involved give to the patients that makes this project so special.
In the 1990s, the cost of medical treatment was comparatively low, and the ceiling for each patient was ₹50,000 for chemotherapy and ₹1 lakh for surgery, a substantial sum in those days. The treatment was done mostly at the Cancer Institute. “The foundation was mostly funded by our club members; PP Badshah was very active and through his contacts collected a lot of the funding. This foundation mostly had non-Rotarians as trustees; one of the first trustees was Dr P C Reddy, chairman of Apollo Hospitals. While six trustees were from RC Madras Midtown, other five were non-Rotarians. Till he passed away in 2017, Habibullah Badshah was the managing trustee, the post now occupied by Duraiswamy.
Though initially this cancer foundation provided only funds for medical treatment, gradually it started providing post-treatment nutrition and other support as well. Till date it has touched the lives of and helped around 700 cancer patients.
Duraiswamy, who was earlier a Rotarian in Indonesia and Malaysia, joined RC Madras Midtown in 2013, and he and his wife, who had worked on similar projects outside India, got involved in the foundation’s work.
I ask him to give me an anecdote which illustrates how more than the money, the personal involvement and caring of the trustees and other Rotarians sets this facility apart from other medical organisations.
Rotary has the strength and commitment to do this on a large scale as you can take it to every part of India after the initial trial programme.
– Dr V Shanta, Late Director, Cancer Institute, Chennai
Almost choking on his words, he relates the case of Syed, a 17-year-old youth who had fourth stage, terminal bone cancer. “The doctors treating him said we have done our utmost to help him, now only the powers above can help further. Syed came from a poor family, and had lost his father. I met him in 2018, and he had been under treatment for cancer for four years.” The administrator of the cancer ward which had been treating the young lad called Duraiswamy, who runs a business in manufacturing organic bio fertilisers, and said: “Uncle, his treatment is complete and there is nothing more we can do, but can you help him through some counselling? By that time I had started counselling. He came on a motorcycle to meet me, and was so cheerful and full of beans that I was simply floored. He said I am having pain but I am managing.”
The mother-in-law was convinced that if strangers knowing her health status could do this, cancer could not be a contagious disease. Thus, the mother and her child were literally reunited.
He told the Rotarian that his father had passed away six months earlier and his sister was going to be married the following year; “I want to earn something and give the money to her. Can you find me some kind of work? He was very good at languages. So I said I will get you a tablet, and teach you how to use it for the work I will assign you. You can work from home, and I will pay you ₹10,000 every month. He was very happy.” Duraiswamy visited the youngster’s home, met his mother and sister and promised to return the next week. After a week the administrator thanked him for making the cancer survivor so happy, but unfortunately, within two weeks Syed’s health took a turn for the worse and he passed away. Controlling his tears the Rotarian adds: “But I am happy I made him happy, and our cancer foundation helped in doing that.”
Last year his mother invited him for Syed’s sister’s marriage and even sent him a picture of the child born to her after a year.
He is most happy about the kind of connections this work allows him to make, and helps to get rid of grave misconceptions about cancer, including the one where people think cancer is contagious. A case he remembers is about 4-year-old Dhaniya, whose mother was suffering from cancer of the lungs. “The mother-in-law was preventing the child from playing with the mother. And the husband was unable to do anything about it.” Duraiswamy took a psychologist with him, visited the family and they freely interacted with the cancer patient. The mother-in-law was convinced that if strangers knowing her health status could do this, cancer could not be a contagious disease. Thus, the mother and her child were literally reunited.
The patient needed medicines worth ₹2,000 a day. Royapettah Hospital helped us reach the manufacturers, we talked to them and are able to get the medicines at ₹8,000 a month.
Duraiswamy is all praise for two institutions that provide cancer care in Chennai. One of the best hospitals for cancer is the Government Royapettah General Hospital which has a dedicated cancer block “with such caring health professionals… I would rate it as one of the best cancer treatment facilities in India. Dr Subbiah is the head; in any private health centre, he can easily earn several lakhs of rupees a month. We send a lot of people there for treatment which is of course free, but we provide food and counselling and even medicines, when required and work very closely with those undergoing treatment there.”
Giving an example of how proactive the Royapettah Hospital staff are in helping cancer patients, he says that recently a cancer case was referred to them through RC Thanjavur Cosmos. The patient did not have a job and needed medicines worth ₹2,000 a day. The club also could not support him; Royapettah Hospital helped us reach the manufacturers, we talked to them and are able to get the medicines at ₹8,000 a month. The patient, who lives in Thanjavur, is Jennifer: she also needed help with her children’s education, and we helped with that as well.”
The project is now facing a financial crisis; it has a corpus of ₹48 lakh but with interest rates coming down, the trustees are struggling for funds, as the donations in the last two years have dropped.
Next Jennifer requested the foundation to get her a job; “she said if you find me a job and I start earning, I can pay ₹8,000 for my medicine and you can help somebody else. So that is the way goodness spreads.” The Rotarians helped her get a job as a collection agent for a microfinance company and she is doing well.
What I like most about this project is not so much the money that the Rotarians give, but the caring, affection, handholding and giving confidence to cancer patients to stand on their own feet through counselling, boosting self-esteem, and spending time with them because after dealing with a malady like cancer people are both petrified and also depressed.
If you find me a job and I start earning, I can pay ₹8,000 for my medicine and you can help somebody else.
– Jennifer, a patient
“This is a signature project of our club and several of our club members are involved and help out, and yet is independent of a particular year’s club’s leadership,” says Duraiswamy. It also works on other Rotary clubs referring patients. “When a patient is referred by a club we ask them how much will you give, and match that amount to help the cancer patient.”
But the project is now facing a financial crisis; it has a corpus of ₹48 lakh but with interest rates coming down, the trustees are struggling for funds, as the donations in the last two years have dropped.
He appeals to Rotarians and other philanthropists to join the cancer foundation’s scheme called patron donors, under which the donors need to give only ₹25,000 a year for 12 years. Already 12 people have signed up, but more are required.
An angel called Dr Shanta
Shankar Duraiswamy has no words to describe the kind of care and passionate involvement the late director of the Cancer Institute in Chennai, Dr V Shanta, displayed for cancer patients. A chance meeting with the administrator of the children ward of the Cancer Institute, where most of the children came from rural areas and places outside Chennai, made him determined to help these children. “We found here children happily running around, as they seldom understand the impact of cancer ravaging their little bodies. But their caretakers, mostly mothers and grandmothers, would be moving around with concern and worry.” To engage the children is a big task and the Rotarians decided to do something beyond giving financial assistance. Ann Lalitha, from RC Madras Midtown, is passionate about arts and crafts and she engaged the children twice every week in lessons in drawing and crafts like Origami, with the Rotarians providing the books and other material.
In 2018, “we got an invite from Dr Shanta to meet her. A simple and smiling lady, she appreciated the work we did for the children, which included providing post-treatment food supplements and medicines when needed. When I explained to her our work, she suggested that we should conduct screening for children suffering from leukaemia and explained to us that if detected early, the chances of cure in such children is 100 per cent,” explains Duraiswamy.
This Rotarian will never forget Dr Shanta’s kind words for Rotary. “She said Rotary is one organisation which has the strength and commitment to do this on a large scale as you can take it to every part of India after the initial trial programme. She had been talking to foundations run by big corporates including Infosys, but she said ‘I prefer Rotary compared to anybody else, because I know you will do it as a trial and if successful will take it around the country. I have seen Rotary’s work in polio eradication and would strongly urge you to take up the challenge for cancer screening too.’” In 2020 she passed away, but the foundation is committed to keeping the promise it gave her.
On future plans, Duraiswamy says the trustees now want to concentrate more on screening for cancer, especially for children, because if we catch them early, the chances of complete cure are much better. “We are working with an NGO Penn Nalam (which translates to women’s wellness), which has a screening bus with a mammography machine. Now our own Rotary district (3232) is coming up with a bus, our DGE Dr Nandakumar is working on that project and our club is going to partner in it, as detection through screening has to be followed up with treatment.”