Batsman smashes India's cancer of silence

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 July, 2012, 12:00am


It can't be confirmed, but it's almost universally believed in India that the country's most famous politician, Sonia Gandhi, went to the US last year for cancer treatment. She, her family and her ruling Congress Party are silent on the subject.

This used to be the typical pattern in India among the rich and famous: after being diagnosed with cancer, slip out of the country to get treatment at a foreign hospital so that no one would ever find out.

The stigma attached to the disease has ensured that every Indian, rich or poor, keeps it a secret. The family retreat into a fortress. The word is never uttered.

But finally someone has smashed the silence. After being diagnosed with lung cancer in February, national team cricketer Yuvraj Singh, 30, told reporters his reaction was: 'How can it be me? I'm an athlete. I run six hours a day.' Once he had accepted the diagnosis, he chose to be open about it.

Singh sought treatment abroad, not to keep it a secret, but because he feared a media circus outside his hospital room every day if he stayed. From his bed at the Cancer Research Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, he kept updating his Facebook profile and posting tweets, giving his fans updates on his treatment and the state of his emotions with candour, saying he was inspired by cyclist Lance Armstrong's account of his battle with cancer.

Singh has chronicled his emotions on having chemotherapy, losing his hair, nausea (posting pictures of himself looking ashen-faced and exhausted), moments of low spirits and what kept him going - his mother and the affection of his fans.

Asked why he has been so honest, he says: 'I made a mistake in ignoring it. I was coughing, coughing up blood sometimes and not able to breathe on one side, but I was so concerned with my cricket that I didn't get it checked. I want people to be aware so that they don't make the same mistake.'

One person who was thrilled with Singh's openness was New Delhi cancer survivor Harmala Gupta. 'No one around me had ever had cancer or survived it, it seemed, because no one had ever talked about it,' she says.

Gupta's battle with lymphoma began two decades ago, and in that time, she has fought to destroy the stigma of cancer in India. She also runs a free home-care programme that treats patients with dignity.

'Singh has done in India what Betty Ford did with breast cancer in the US,' she says. 'He has broken the silence. I am sure it will have a very positive effect on others because he is an icon.'

But actually, there was someone before Singh: Indo-Canadian actress and model, Lisa Ray, who has made her home in India.

Ray was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a malignancy of the plasma cells in the bone marrow considered fatal, in June 2009 at the age of 37. Her refusal to hide her illness was covered in the Indian press but had less impact than Singh's case because she spends only half her time in India.

Nonetheless, her blog was both brutally honest and humorous - how she was ravenous all the time from the steroids, the impact of other drugs, how she refused to let the disease 'tyrannise' her, and how her body shape and weight fluctuated wildly during treatment.

Ten months later, Ray was cancer-free and has since championed the cause of stem cell transplant treatment, which she describes as 'like being reborn from the inside out'.

Dr Bhawna Sirohi, oncologist at the Artemis Health Institute near Delhi, has treated many well-known people for cancer. She admires Singh's frankness.

'It will lead to increased awareness and to people going for check-ups if there is something amiss,' she says. 'At the moment, 60 per cent of my patients come to me when it's already too late.'