Saturday, 6 February 2016

A Business called Cancer

I was fourteen when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was the first time in my life I had seen my iron man father break down and cry like a baby. Thankfully, it was an early stage and the prognosis looked good. I saw my mother go through surgery and grueling sessions of chemotherapy. There was not one side effect that she did not have. She would cry with pain piercing her bones due to the death and subsequent growth of white blood cells in her bone marrow. Her hair fell off. She was unable to eat anything. All her veins collapsed. Heparin was not much help. She received a chemo-port which got infected and gave her a blood infection. She survived the ordeal but never completely recovered from it. Sometimes I wonder if the treatment for cancer took away more of her health than the cancer itself.

In my best friend's mother's case, it actually did. Her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour by accident. She had fallen and injured her head. The pain refused to go. Imaging reports showed a tumour in her brain. She too underwent surgery and received radiotherapy, which, along with the cancerous cells, killed many of her healthy nerve cells too. In time, she became completely paralysed, and was bed ridden for many years before dying a slow and painful death.

My tayaji too was not very lucky. I was in the last year of college when he was diagnosed with stomach-oesophageal cancer. According to my father - the captain of all killer cancers. His prognosis was not good. The cancer soon metastasized, robbing him of his ability to eat. He could not even drink water when thirsty. By his last days, he had became frail, skeleton like, and sometimes you almost wished that his pain ends. He was one of the noblest, gentlest people on earth. I couldn't sleep for many months after his death.

I did not intend to spoil your day telling you my sob story. I barely wanted you to know that I'm one of those unfortunate people who have known cancer closely. And hence, it pains me so much to see how people are exploiting this fear of cancer to reap profits. Let me give a few examples.

Some time back, my mother-in-law complained of severe back pain. Imaging tests showed fibroids in her uterus. We knew that she has had fibroids for many years, we only wanted to know if they had increased or become harmful in any way. We decided to go to one of the most reputed Gynae & Obs specialist in Delhi. People from all over the country come to this doctor. She looked at her report, took her family history, and said - 'Please come tomorrow morning for surgery. Your uterine wall has thickened so much that you will develop cancer any day. We need to perform a hysterectomy immediately. Yours is a very high risk case since your mother also had cancer.' The world came crashing down on us. When a doctor of such high repute tells you something like that, you take it seriously.

Almost immediately, we made a few calls, and our family doctors were not convinced. We were told to take a second opinion from Dr. Puneet Bedi, who is famous for his conservative approach to gynaecology. (I choose to mention his name because he is by far one of the finest doctors I've met. Behind his Dr. House like personality lies an extremely caring, dedicated and noble gynaecologist who is also a very active crusader against female foeticide and medical malpractice. Needless to say, he will be my gynaecologist for as long as he chooses to practice). On meeting him, we came to know that benign, non-bleeding fibroids in a menopausal woman don't require any immediate action. She merely needed regular screening so that any changes can be detected. The back pain was probably due to her hectic lifestyle, totally unrelated to her uterus.

That day, my faith in the medical system was both shattered and restored. Shattered, because you can't trust a senior doctor to give you good advice. I don't know how many hysterectomies is she doing every day giving a cancer scare to gullible people. Minting money, sure, but putting people's lives at risk by performing such major surgeries. Restored, because there are still doctors like Dr. Bedi, saving a noble profession from disgrace.

The next instance came when I was about to have my baby. There were people floating around everywhere giving options for stem cell banking. 'You know your child could have cancer some day, or any other rare genetic disorder. This will save him/her.' Stem cell banking in India is not very expensive. Any middle class person can afford it. So naturally, any person would want to go for such a revolutionary, life saving technology. Truth is, it's almost a sham. There are a handful of very very very rare genetic disorders that can reap any benefit at all from stem cell banking. All just a way to make money. These companies must be laughing all the way to the bank.

I was recently surprised at a TV advertisement for a non-invasive blood test that can detect cancer early. A TV ad? Really? Obnoxious to say the least. Then there are tests for the BRCA gene. Made famous by Angelina Jolie. Luring customers for overly expensive genetic testing exploiting their fear of having cancer. And what about the HPV vaccine? It can only save you from a few strains of the cancer causing virus. It is probably more harmful than beneficial. And HPV usually affects women who become sexually active at a young age. So it's sort of ineffective if taken beyond 26 years of age. Do I hear the cash registers ringing?

Cancer has become a huge industry. Billions of dollars get pounded into cancer research. Numerous surgeries are performed, many of which are unnecessary. New tests are coming up every day. But, we are no closer to getting a cure for metastatic cancer than what we were a decade ago. There are only three options for cancer patients - surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy - which are effective only in early stages of cancer, and are as painful as the disease itself. Pharmaceutical companies drive the funding for cancer research, for newer chemotherapy drugs and have really struck a goldmine there. Most charities also give money to paid research. Some have even been accused of misusing funds. Cancer is so profitable that there are very few people interested in eradicating it. These companies have also ensured that any alternative therapies be labelled as quackery. There really is no cure for metastatic cancer in allopathy. You can only wish that if a person were to be diagnosed with late-stage cancer, they die early instead of having a long and painful ordeal with the disease.

I don't know one person who hasn't seen a cancer patient in their close family. Due to its prevalence, most people know how much pain this disease inflicts. And how much toll its treatment takes on the patient. I am a worrier by nature and given my family history, I too worry that either me or one of my siblings could become afflicted one day. Or one of my moms could have it (a relapse in my own mother's case). But there really is no preventing the inevitable. If it has to happen it will happen.

There are some things you can do though. Adopt healthier lifestyles, cut down on carbs and processed foods, plan on having children early and breastfeed them for as long as possible, avoid popping pills unless absolutely necessary, and definitely go for regular screening if you know you are at risk. Early detection means good prognosis, better treatment, better quality of living. And please do not fall prey to the exploits of the cancer industry. As they say, 'No medicine is better than bad medicine'. And for cancer treatment, there really is no medicine, unless diagnosed early.

Signing off wishing all of you good health, more sunshine and more laughter. Cheers!

1 comment:

  1. Some clarifications for those who might have misunderstood what I wrote.
    a) In this post, I do not say that no cancer is treatable. There are many types of cancers. Some have good prognosis when detected early. Others have bad prognosis even if detected early. Modern medicine is treating the curable ones well. BUT, if a cancer has metastasised, i.e. It has spread to vital organs of the body, then it is not treatable, no matter how good its early prognosis was. Metastatic cancer is not curable as of now.
    b) This post is not about how cancer is treated in an ideal world. It's about how it is being exploited for profit.
    c) HPV is a group of viruses. Some of the viruses in this group cause cervical cancer. The vaccine only prevents against 2 of them. The vaccine works best when given as a pre-teen, before any sexual contact. The manufacturers themselves say that it provides no protection beyond the age of 26. Here, in India I know of many married women, even 50 year olds being prescribed this vaccine. It's useless at that age. Only a means to make money by doctors in liaison with pharma companies.
    d) In an ideal world, the BRCA gene test is a boon for those who are considered at risk. There are specific parameters to determine who is at risk. In our world, commercially oriented doctors are exploiting the fear of the people about getting cancer. If a person can afford it, it's likely he/she will be asked to take the test.
    e) Chemotherapy and radiotherapy continue to be as painful as before. Despite so much funding, cancer research has not come way forward. Where is the money going? Surely not in eradicating the disease.


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