I was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. Almost everyone in India told me not to talk about it to anyone.

Voices Thursday, June 05, 2014 - 05:30
By Chitra Subramaniam The News Minute| June 1, 2014| Watch this advertisement for Dhathri hair oil. Then read further. Did you feel like rushing out to buy hair oil, were puzzled, laughed, plugged your ears because the music is bésur – all of that or none of that? We discussed this video in our news room. Yes, it’s positive – happy and smiling lady who chops off her beautiful hair to make a wig for a lady who has lost her hair to chemotherapy. There’s hope for hair. There’s also a lot of hope for cancer, but the advertisement is oblivious to it. Let us skip the stereotyping and also the stupidity of the idea of using cancer to sell a product. How long do I have is the first question a newly-diagnosed patient asks. Anyone who says anything else is lying. A cancer diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence. But someone has to talk about it. Like with all other diseases in India, we don’t talk cancer. The first one to start the silence machine is often the doctor who advises the family and friends to do so. Recently a friend’s mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Unable to eat and in pain, she was taken to a hospital. The diagnosis followed and with it the drama. Elaborate plans were set in motion to keep quiet and gangs of relatives and friends hung around her pretending it was a picnic, bringing her fruits and vegetables none of which she could eat. Here are five things Indians do when cancer enters their family – it has still not entered their language. Remember the C word. Don’t tell the patient anything This advice often starts with the doctor who speaks to the men in the family on a priority basis on the assumption that they are talking to science. Vast and minute details are discussed about who should know and when depending on what the oracles in families decide is the receiving power of the told. The patient’s questions are irrelevant. Maybe there’s a will to be written, some jewelry to be shared, a secret to unravel or simply crying with the family. It is only happening to others Sure. That is why all of us have so many cancer stories to share. More story, less science. More fable, less fact. Try this. Tell anyone in India you have cancer and watch them tell you about their aunt. Watch them lecture about which hospital is good and which doctor is crooked and which laboratory sells data. Your aunt, the patient, is also a person. Maybe, just maybe, s/he doesn’t see it quite the way you do. Ring America In America they speak English and most middle class Indian families have family in America. All of them are neurologists and astronauts – if they don’t know what is the latest, who will? Ask your friend to ring his uncle to find out if their neighbour who had breast cancer benefitted from Ayurveda. Get on the internet or better, tweet There’s glory in gore. Forget about what the patient is trying to say. Tell them what you think. Their distress is for you to share, their questions are for you to answer and squander. Their smiles and laughter are for you to scorn over because you don’t stop to think how it is not about you, but about your, who was that…aunt. If you are part of the sadness industry, imagine if the subject of your sadness sees it differently. What can you then sell? Karmic complaint Why me. The patient may not be saying that, but others are. Who said ignorance is bliss – ignorance is power, it is a blessing to flog, it is an advertising campaign. Never let science and technology get in between you and the patient. Never let laughter disturb you as someone embraces destiny and luck with equanimity. Never assume that the aunt you have been trying to protect knows more than you. What will happen to the fruits and the vegetables - where is that tiffin carrier? All of the above is part of my story. I was diagnosed with cancer in 2011. Almost everyone in India told me not to talk about it to anyone. My instincts were the opposite – the only way to overcome fear is to sing! There is nothing special about me. There is nothing special about anyone who is diagnosed with a disease. It has to be dealt with and there is work to do. There was something else. I owed a debt to people who had gone before me so I could live. There were those who had subjected themselves to clinical trials and technology without knowing the outcome, people who were neither martyrs nor heroes, only because they cared for their loved ones. They actively participated in their diagnosis, treatment and in many cases complete remission because of what the best doctors call miracle of life. The number of people in India who tell me their stories since I decided to speak about mine is more sad than astonishing. There is a man who has to bring his mother for chemo every week but cannot get time off from work. He lies to survive. There is a lady who has been diagnosed with breast cancer but is frightened to tell her husband. There are doctors who keep quiet either because the patients are poor or because they think the family is weak. And there is a family which has a history of mental illness, like many Indians. But that is another lie altogether, to be written about another time. The Dhathri hair oil campaign could have been laughed off if it was scientifically accurate. Chemotherapy is advanced to such a point that hair-loss is not automatic anymore. But that would mean the copy writer stops copying and examines the data. Miracles cannot be advertised, but science must be explained. We in India imitate the worst of possibilities when it comes to speaking about our bodies and ourselves, our diseases and our recovery. That is because we don’t have the courage to stand up and say no it’s not my aunt who has cancer, I do. There is no succor in gangs.
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