47-year-old Mark Rego has always loved his funky, bleached hair. But when he was diagnosed with colon cancer about 14 years ago, his bleached locks began to fall out due to chemotherapy. Eventually, his colleagues started to notice the changes in his appearance but Mark refused to be embarrassed about it. “I turned it into a style statement,” he laughs. He was big on bandanas back then, and being an emcee was one of the things that kept him going.
Bengaluru-based Mark calls himself a ‘daily wage earner’ because his income depends on whether he gets shows or gigs. “If I stopped (working), I starved,” says Mark. To add to the strain, the doctors gave him only a few months to live. “My kids were really young at the time, and I could not stand the thought of leaving them without a father. So I fought the cancer mentally more than anything else,” he adds.
Mark says that though there were days when getting out of bed was the hardest thing he had to do, he never stopped working.
“I think I had too much pride to show people I was hurting,” says Mark. His job demanded that he never be low on energy because he was the one who kept the party going. “But the fact that I kept myself busy did not allow the cancer to get the better of me,” he adds. That his colleagues and friends treated him normally and not sympathetically also helped.
With better treatment, cancer patients suffer fewer side effects, says Dr Shankar Srinivasan, an oncologist at Apollo hospital Chennai. Most of the time, patients are advised to stick to their routine.
“Working allows cancer patients a diversion from thinking about their ailments,” explains Dr Shankar, “and it keeps depression at bay.”
For 26-year-old Harteij Bhartej however, life threw nasty shocks. “When I was trying to start my career, my father was still running around to save my life,” Harteij recalls. “I used to think, despite all of this, what if I didn’t survive?”
Diagnosed with stage three of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, he delayed his treatment to complete his BBA-LLB degree. But in April 2014, he had to quit his post-graduate course midway because the cancer had reached the last stage.
He began applying for jobs after he was through with chemotherapy in November 2014, hoping to start his career and maybe give something back to his parents. But employers treated him as a college dropout, offered him half the salary of a fresher and considered him too weak to handle the pressures of professional life.
“As long as a person is able to work and do the designated work, they should be allowed to,” Dr Shankar insists. The ideal way to prevent situations faced by Harteij would be to have legislation which disallows discrimination in pay and employment based on the candidates’ malignancy or medical history.
However, he warns that such a situation can also be a double-edged sword and when there are persisting side-effects, survivors should undertake jobs that are within their capacity. “You have to be fair to the employers as well,” he says.
This is a lesson 28-year-old Vasanth Patel learnt after three years of trying to manage a full-time IT job after a surgery removed a cancerous tumour in his brain. He was a Bachelors of Technology student when he was diagnosed in 2006.
While the surgery was successful, it did lasting damage to his eyes. He could not look at a screen for long periods and it became hard for Vasanth to deal with daily headaches and eye pain while he worked. In three years, he was compelled to change jobs thrice because of consistently low salaries he received.
“They (employers) knew about the cancer and they were okay with it,” says Vasanth, “but when I was unable to work after 5-6 hours on the computer, they said I should not give the same excuse every time.”
Vasanth finally quit in 2012 and designated himself to what he calls ‘home-desk’ jobs where he is required to work for 2-3 hours a day on the computer.
However, there is a silver lining for these survivors who took to expelling myths they encountered during their struggle.
Vasanth spends time talking to other cancer survivors who contact him from the internet. “It gives me some satisfaction because when I was struggling to work the IT jobs, I tried to find other Indian survivors and communities for advice. But there were none,” he says.
He is also looking to go into food or textile business. “I think it would be best if I could be my own boss,” he remarks.
Mark continues to be an emcee, a quizmaster and also runs a restaurant. And after realizing how important it is to mentally strong, he has taken to counselling other cancer patients too.
Meanwhile, Harteij decided to go on a solo trip across India to dispel myths about cancer. He calls is ‘Ride of Hope’ and holds sessions with schools, in workplaces and meets as many cancer patients as he can.
Currently in Mangaluru, Harteij says he has been to eight states and two Union Territories. “I have forgotten the number of cities I have been to,” he laughs. “I’ve realized that everyone knows someone who has cancer. And not many believe that you can survive it. So when I meet people, they have hope.”