Websites and support groups help Indian cancer survivors find partners
Cancer survivors can rarely find partners in India, but websites and support groups are helping to pair lonely hearts, writes Amrit Dhillon
Binoo George, 33, was diagnosed with lymphoma six years ago and is now in remission. With the illness behind him, his older brother, Balaji, worries that Binoo doesn't have a partner, children, emotional intimacy or a typical family life.
Over the past four years, Balaji has searched their home of Kochi in the state of Kerala, trying to arrange a marriage for his brother.
"The moment any prospective family hears about the cancer, they vanish. But in India, there is no alternative to arranged marriages. You have to get married to have a partner. This is not like foreign countries where you can find someone yourself and go around without marrying," says Balaji.
When he heard about a new marriage website set up by the youth wing of St Mary's Orthodox Parish Church in Kerala last month, his heart soared with fresh hope. He registered Binoo at once.
"I haven't told him, though. I don't want to get his hopes up until I have found someone who might work out," he says.
The website, insightmatrimony.com is the first of its kind in India, catering to cancer survivors who want to share their life with a partner. "After realising that few Indians will accept a cancer survivor as a spouse, we decided their best hope was to find another cancer survivor, through this website," says website co-ordinator Chils Thomas Koshy.
"The stigma of cancer is still there. People fear a recurrence, the medical expenses. They are scared the children will have a greater chance of getting cancer."
Anyone aged between 20 and 35 can register free of charge. Koshy says 180 people have registered since the launch. The figure would have been higher had the website not run into technical problems. A similar impulse was behind a just-launched United States-based website called 2date4love. The site is for survivors who cannot have sex, due to the effect of cancer or its treatment, but who want a companion.
In other countries there is no support for cancer survivors seeking partners. The Hong Kong Cancer Fund, for example, provides no such service at any of its care centres. A spokesman said patients were focused on "treatment and recovery" rather than finding a partner.
If arranged marriages were not the bedrock of Indian culture, insightmatrimony would be unnecessary. People would fall in love, discover the person was a cancer survivor and marry regardless, at least in most cases.
Spontaneous love scorns cost-benefit analysis, but arranged marriages are based on cold calculations. Parents seek to find the best possible mate for their child against a list of criteria and a cancer survivor does not make the shortlist. Arranging a marriage is like shopping. The best deal is sought and no "defective" goods will be entertained.
Most Indians still consider cancer a shameful secret. The only significant recent breakthrough was the brave decision by cricketer Yuvraj Singh to tell the public he had cancer after being diagnosed with a lung tumour in 2011. It was one of the few times a celebrity had acknowledged they had cancer. Singh's honesty has dented the taboo to some extent, but not to the point where cancer survivors can find partners.
Poonam Bagai, chairwoman of CanKids … KidsCan, a support group in New Delhi for children with cancer and their families, and a former cancer patient herself who fights against the stigma, understands the difficulty.
"If I were absolutely honest, if one of my two sons fell in love with a cancer survivor, I'd be fine. But if I had to arrange his marriage and I could choose between a girl who is a cancer survivor and one who does not have cancer, then I would probably go for the latter," says Bagai.
And that is the way it will stay, as long as arranged marriages are the norm, Bagai says. An overwhelming majority of Indians have arranged marriages, partly to please their parents and partly because they like the tradition.
Matrimonial websites are so popular these days that they have become specialised, catering to specific groups: the divorced, people diagnosed with HIV, civil servants, the disabled.
One general website, Jeevansathi, has a section for cancer survivors, but insightmatrimony is the only site that caters exclusively to them. The church was also prompted to create the website because Kerala has the highest number of cancer patients in the country for reasons that remain unclear.
"By marrying another cancer survivor, people will not just be accepted but also understood. They will have gone through the same experiences and emotions that others won't understand, so it's comforting for them," says Koshy.
At the CanKids office, a colourful, bustling centre reached through a warren of narrow alleyways, Ritu Bhalla, 23, works as an awareness co-ordinator. She is also the Girl Child Cancer Ambassador of India.
Petite, articulate and self-possessed, Bhalla has matured enormously since Bagai took her under her wing years ago. She was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma at the age of four. After a course of treatment, she recovered. Then, at the age of 11, she was diagnosed with a second cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Since 2004, she has been free of the disease.
Among the young people she works with, most tell her that their parents will hide the fact of their cancer when they reach marrying age. There is no alternative.
Bhalla understands that arranged marriages make this lying inevitable. For her part, she will choose her own partner. Working for CanKids has given her a confidence and social skills that few other girls from her poor background could hope to acquire.
Moreover, she can afford to make her own decisions about her life partner because she is the family's breadwinner, supporting her parents and two younger sisters. "I realise that not everyone can decide to find their own partner," says Bhalla.
"My circumstances are different. I am who I am because of my cancer. It has given my life direction. Cancer is my achievement. But I realise that others less fortunate than me cannot have this attitude and must have an arranged marriage and, for them, this website will be a great help."
She and the other young survivors at CanKids often joke that Singh, who is 32 and unmarried, should hurry up and find himself a wife.
"When a cancer survivor like Yuvraj, who is rich and famous, finds a woman to accept him, that will break down the doors and make it easier for other survivors to find a partner, too," she says.