Opinion
Cancer is a medical reality. Half-knowledge cloaked as goodwill is dangerous.

Malayalam actor Jishnu Raghavan passed away last week after a two-year struggle with cancer. He was 35 and he leaves behind his wife, parents and scores of bereaved fans who swung between hope and despair, like the actor himself. They cheered when he reached complete remission (CR) and despaired as he relapsed never to return. He had throat and lung cancer.

Were his fans right in sending him information about ‘cures’ found in traditional medicine?

Death may be the ultimate equaliser, but famous people have to deal with fans eager to cure their stars. Circumspection when it comes to free advise is not an Indian trait. In the age of Facebook and Google this enthusiasm often turns to unhindered medical ‘knowledge’ and personal stories based on wishful thinking not science. Everybody has a cousin in America and an aunt in Coimbatore as well, with several tumours disappearing to the surprise of western medicine.

Jishnu Raghavan had his dose as well, of people asking him to try remedies like Lakshmi Tharu (simarouba glauca) and Mulathu/Mulethi (graviola). He tried the various cures and as he wrote on his Facebook page, he found himself in a dangerous spot. Not wishing to hurt his followers, he left a note saying goodwill is one thing, holding out hope of cure is quite another especially as he was battling for life.

Friends I am getting a lot of suggestions to take lakshmi tharu and mulatha.. This was popularised through social...

Posted by Jishnu Raghavan on Monday, April 20, 2015

Mulethi is liquorice, a flavouring agent used in home remedies for medical properties identified by Ayurveda and Chinese medicine. It has been used to treat anything from throat congestions to hair loss. It is also sold as a mouth freshener in many parts of the world like mint or gum.  A native of South and Central America Lakshmi tharu or Paradise tree (dysentery-bark, bitter wood in English, Hartho or Bilchuli in Hindi and Lakshmi tharu in Malayalam) is now widely grown in Karnataka and some parts of Kerala. It is used to treat cancers and malaria, dysentery, wounds and sores among other ailments.

A reading of available literature on both Mulethi and Lakshmi tharu suggests eating of the first and a decoction of the second can alleviate certain conditions, but cure is not yet identified within their range. Their medicinal properties closely resemble that of Haldi (curcuma) which has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It’s use in Indian cooking and increasingly in health food drinks is a testimony to Haldi’s properties. Oncologists the world over are open to traditional products that can help the immune system recover from aggressive chemotherapy or medication, but none has a cure-tag that comes attached.

That is because there is no scientific evidence to back such claims. Science matters in cancer treatment, so does faith and in that order. A good oncologist knows how to deal with the two and approaches treatments thus. Roughly this translates to faith in the patient’s capacity to mentally fight the diagnosis and faith in science and technology to enable a sound completion of treatment. A sulking or depressed patient is a doctor’s nightmare. Jighnu Raghavan wrote that the best gift he could give his doctor was a hearty smile and a thumbs-up.

Cancer kills 1,300 Indians daily. According to the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the estimated mortality rate due to cancer has seen an increase of some six per cent between 2012 an 2014. Tobacco alone kills one million Indians annually.

Research over the past two decades has meant that for those who can afford it, there is actually a glut of cancer treatments in the market and many more in the pipeline. What was frontline two years ago is replaced by something more efficient and less aggressive.  Most recently scientists at Imperial College in London have found a protein they believe will be a game-changer for cancer treatment as it “turbo-charges” the immune system to fight the disease. Research is a 24/7 job – we don’t see researchers on pavements or shop-windows but their work continues non-stop.

Jishnu Raghavan was in the best of hands and it is fair to assume that he was also receiving cutting edge treatment. Doctors have their limitations and this patient was unlucky. His death is a tragedy and that is perhaps what prompted his fans to advise traditional medicine routes. Jishnu Raghavan cautioned his fans against raising false hopes. Take a cue fans. Stars are human beings too – they need their private moments as much as their public space. In a situation like this, it is for the public to draw the line, not the other way around.