Visiting Shangri–La



Darjeeling: overlooking the Himalayan ranges, with Kanchenjunga, in the middle (Image: S. Datta)


  Somnath Datta is a wonderfully uplifting and gracious follower on Twitter, who has contributed the following fascinating article on what it is like to be diagnosed with cancer in India. Reading this account was a humbling experience for me and I am grateful to Somnath for enligtening us. It is appropriate in the week that we celebrate International Women’s Day to reflect on the inequalities that still exist for women (and men) in many societies.   

“Hope is the most exciting thing in life and if you honestly believe it is out there, it will come. And even if it doesn’t come straight away there is still that chance all through your life that it will.”   

I was thinking those very thoughts when I took my mother and laid my first step inside the famed Tata Memorial Hospital in Mumbai. Then, I had no inkling of how extensively the trip will broaden my knowledge and horizons of cancer knowledge, caring doctors, human yearning for survival and their strength to achieve it.   

Throughout my 5 trips to the famous hospital known for its pioneering work in cancer research and treatment of hundreds and thousands of people, I was overwhelmed by the show of human resilience against a disease branded as one of the deadliest in the nation with 2.5+ million already infected and with over 8,00,000+ new cases and 5,50,000+ deaths occurring per annum.   

The purpose of my visit to Mumbai was to evaluate the nature of a lump in my mother’s right breast. While waiting for my call in the OPD, I saw Chandra, a 2 year old boy, who was crying his heart out in the OPD. I was so overwhelmed by his pain; I stood numb looking at him, at a total loss of word and emotions.   

As such sights grew around me, I could find myself changing. I started learning a lot about the disease, its effect on people and their families. I also learnt about ACTREC – The Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research & Education in Cancer.   

Due to long standing dogma on Cancer, its mere detection puts the patient and their families in a social and economically minacious position, with over a third of those diagnosed facing anxiety, depression and fearing ostracization. One critical reason, why 70% of the case reported for treatment are in their advanced stages. The cost of treatment, pittances in comparison to developed countries are still much beyond the measure and scope of most Indian middle class families.   

Patients are graded based on their income. While the treatment and care is not influenced by the grading, the cost of the treatment is.   

The next day, I met Angela. The closest town from her village is Mipi, in Arunachal Pradesh, the furthest of Indian states in the east. I listened to her incredible story of walking for 2 whole days before catching a bus for State capital Itanagar, from there, another 11 hour bus ride to Guwahati, then a 24 hour train ride to Calcutta and finally, a 33 hour train ride to Mumbai. “This entire duress”, she told me, “is to ensure my mom receives the treatment she deserves.” She spoke in her airy, wispy yet steely resolute voice.   

In my last two days of visit, I encountered a lady from Kashmir, The northernmost state of India. We struck up a conversation as we awaited calls from our respective doctors. Proud, determined and strong-willed, she narrated to me her experiences of tests, admission, operation and post-op treatment at the hospital. “Initially it hurt a lot. But, everything was done with extreme care, tenderness and sympathy.” She recounted. Her process stretched well into 3rd month now.   

The OPD was crowded with similar brave men and women. Each has a memorable tale to tell, snippets of which were exchanged standing in the queue, waiting for the doctor’s call or sharing a cup of coffee.   

The entire waiting area, both inside and on the outside, renders irrefutable proof of their confidence. People from all walk of life and all sections of society, have thronged here with hopes of finding a cure for their ailment, a chance to live a second time, to receive the gift of life. To them, the Tata Memorial Hospital offers an eternal ray of hope. To them, it remains their Shangri – La.