It’s been exactly two months since I lost my father, shockingly, to cancer. It was shocking because he was only 47, and a teetotaler with a healthy lifestyle. He had never smoked, chewed pan masala or even touched liquor in his lifetime. I am yet to understand the reasons he got cancer; probably I would never be able to know, given the nature of the disease itself, as it happens due to a mutation in the human gene, which in turn could be triggered by a host of things present around us. So, as much as, smoking and drinking can cause it, harmful environment, inhaling poor quality air, consuming adulterated food, toxic vegetables or fruits and contaminated water, can very much lead to the changes in the genes; which then allows the cancer cells to grow in a manner that it becomes impossible to keep a check.
Siddharth Mukherjee in his excellent book “The Emperor of all Maladies“, has discussed the history, origins and the contemporary state of this disease that has taken almost 20 million people in its hold in the US alone. Mukherjee also explains the nature of the disease and how it tends to shock people with its fatal blow striking suddenly. I wish I had read this book earlier, that way I could have taken my father’s pain (which he, on doctors and physiotherapists advise, brushed as Cervical Spondylitis) more seriously. If I could understand the severity of his symptoms, we would have been able to get an earlier diagnosis of this disease.
Is it my fault? I have often asked myself. But the moment I begin to look for answers, another question pops up in my mind. Was it possible for me to know? My father who regularly had bouts of pain and sleepless nights had gone to physicians, orthopaedics, neurologists and physiotherapists seeking relief from the pain radiating in his shoulders. But the doctors remained ignorant about his condition and had no other explanation to offer, except calling it a lifestyle problem. Then, how can we – the non-professionals, doubt a doctor’s observations? We have no choice but to believe them.
The doctors advised painkillers and calcium and vitamin supplements, to boost his immune system and give him relief from the pain. When I think about it now, I realise how poorly read doctors we had encountered, not even a single person indicated that my father might have cancer, and we should take his health seriously. It was only in the last month when the MRI scan was performed that the radiologist offered me an ‘explanation’ for the pain, which incidentally, my brother also discovered just two days before his MRI exam. So, we got to know that it was a rare type of lung cancer, known as Pancoast Tumor. However, the cause remains unknown since it is more prevalent in smokers.
Today, a network of health-diagnosis labs has spread exponentially in India. Anytime you visit a doctor with a problem, the first thing that he suggests is a medical examination, most likely from his known labs before even taking a guess about the disease. While a scientific examination is necessary, dependence on it creates hopelessness in the patients and their family. And if you want to get yourself examined in a government hospital, you must be ready to wait endlessly.
On the other hand, the veracity of private lab test results is itself in question. My father’s blood sugar was tested twice within a month. Both the reports had different results; the first made my father a patient of diabetes keeping him away from the consumption of sweets which he really loved and the other which took a random sample of his blood glucose and declared him fit and non-diabetic. Thus, for the first time, it raised suspicion in my mind about the accuracy and usefulness of these tests. Even if one was to believe the reports, the doctors also seem to suggest patients have unnecessary tests, knowing very well that it may not be of any use. Thus, innumerable tests waste patients’ precious time and money.
The next in line is the issue of people having an insurance/health cover which seems to vanish as soon as one falls ill and begins treatment. Doctors, hospitals inflate the cost of treatment for people having medical insurance. Thus, making the patient look poor, even when they have insurance coverage. The role that the pharmaceutical companies can play in the effective control of diseases is transformative, but alas, the purpose is curbed by the competitive market professionals, who openly offer discounts, gifts and offer free samples of drugs to the doctors for promotion. The strategy may well increase the profits of these companies, but it hardly benefits the patients who might have to take an extra tablet just because the pharma companies and doctors have decided to experiment with a new drug.
Given the appalling situation of poorly qualified doctors, little research on a disease, insatiable selfish and greedy lab owners, and hospitals with every day increasing cases of cancer; I urge that the government make a national policy for the treatment of cancer. The disease must be taken seriously so that people don’t lose their lives in our country fighting this deadly but treatable disease. The concern for the untimely death of ordinary people of this country must be a cause for action. Every person deserves to live their life to its full extent. Every day a lot of people succumb to cancer due to late diagnosis, ignorance and inadequate health care system. Given the alarming rate of the spread of the disease, the government should prepare a healthcare system to take this challenge head-on.