She Lost Her Grandma To Cancer; Now She Has Helped Nearly 2000 Rural Women With Breast Cancer

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Breast cancer is perhaps on the verge of becoming an epidemic in India, with an exponential rise in the number of cases each passing year. The most concerning part of this dangerous trend is that 8 out of 10 breast cancer patients in India do not survive in the absence of early intervention and inaccessibility of proper treatment. An indelible taboo surrounds the ‘feminine’ disease in rural India, leading many women, young and old, to succumb to breast cancer within five years of the onset of the deadly disease. With Aaroogya, by Priyanjali Dutta wants to change this. 

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

She Promised Her Grandma To Free The World From Cancer

Priyanjali Dutta was only 19 and a final-year dental student when her mother was diagnosed with Essential Thrombocytosis, a rare precancerous blood disorder. Around the same time, her sister and her adopted brother, both of whom were special kids, faced certain complications with their health. Priyanjali’s world came crumbling down.

The news brought back traumatic memories of losing her dear grandmother to cancer.

At 25, Dr Priyanjali Dutta is the brains behind Aaroogya – a non-profit organisation dedicated to offering basic healthcare facilities for free in remote parts of rural India. Her exceptional work in the domain of breast cancer awareness has saved over 700,000 women and earned her accolades from all over the world.

Aaroogya: She Started Her Work At 21

Priyanjali started Aaroogya in 2017 at the age of 21, from her hometown Shillong in Meghalaya, a state with one of the highest occurrences of cancer. From there, the Aaroogya movement has proliferated all over India, penetrating into the country’s nooks and corners and impacting nearly 700,000 lives in Meghalaya, Delhi-NCR, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and West Bengal.


“Since I was pursuing my degree in a government medical college, I encountered patients who were mostly from an underprivileged background. I got a first-hand exposure to their plights and distress, and the factors that prevent them from availing timely medical care,” recalls Priyanjali, in a conversation with Efforts For Good.

While in college, Priyanjali’s unique approach to spread breast cancer awareness through fashion shows and choreography garnered a lot of attention in national and even international media. Soon, she delved into the scene of rural healthcare, dropping-in door-to-door in villages to inform women about breast cancer. That’s how Aaroogya came into being and propelled Priyanjali as a full-time social entrepreneur.


Battling Resistance From The Villagers

Initially, she would face a lot of resistance from the villagers, as the womenfolks were either not allowed to step outside the confines of the household, or they were conditioned to ignore any health issues, especially those concerning their ‘private parts’. There had been times when men armed with ‘lathis’ surrounded Priyanjali and her team during their interaction with women in Uttar Pradesh hamlets.

With time, Priyanjali and her trained team of women volunteers managed to break the ice and share tête-à-tête with the shy housewives and teenage girls. Later they would be invited to attend the screening camps, where many had been diagnosed with breast or cervical cancer, even at critical stages. Most of her volunteers were Anganwadi workers and ASHA workers who were trained for months about the basics of cancer.

Priyanjali attributes a substantial part of Aaroogya’s success to Thermal Mammogram – an AI-driven procedure which helped her diagnose malignancy symptoms in women, without involving any physical touch of a doctor which they are extremely conscious about. In recognition of her incredible efforts, Hans Foundation has donated a Thermal Mammogram machine to Aaroogya, easing Priyanjali’s work by loads.

Some Shocking Encounters With The Stark Village Reality

Priyanjali recalls some of the shocking encounters she had in these villages.

“The level of ignorance and neglect of health among the villagers is appalling. In one UP village, people were consuming Bhang, weed and hash day in and day out, regarding it as ‘Bholenath Ka Prasad’ (Lord Shiva’s blessing), without having the slightest idea how gravely it is harming their health,” she shares.

Many patients would continue to ignore their cancer symptoms even in advanced stages, passing it off as some skin ailment or simply choosing to live with it, since they cannot afford treatment and medicine.

“In one camp, a middle-aged woman came, complaining of severe backache. When we examined her, we were terrified to find her at a very advanced stage of breast cancer. She had barely put up a thin cloth over her right breast which was completely disfigured and bleeding profusely. We rushed her to the emergency at the nearest hospital in Patna. She is now undergoing treatment,” Priyanjali shares, expressing her anguish at the body-shaming stigma plaguing the lives of rural women.

Priyanjali was quite sceptical when Aaroogya was invited to Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, by the local Ayushman Bharat coordinator to conduct a breast cancer camp in her hospital. “I thought a pollution-free, organically enriched place like Rishikesh would have almost no cases of breast cancer. I was in for a shock when six women nurses at the hospital itself were diagnosed with the disease at dangerous stages,” she shares.


Expressing Her Gratitude

“I must express my sincere gratitude to a few eminent dignitaries, without whose guidance none of Aaroogya’s progress would have been a reality. Ronald van het Hof, the managing director of Women on Wings taught me the nitty-gritty of being an entrepreneur, while Dr Pramod Kumar Julka exposed me to the latest developments in cancer treatment like molecular profiling or precision medicine,” expresses Priyanjali.

“My interaction with Mary, an anthropologist from Israel, helped me understand how a person’s surroundings and daily schedule have the largest impact on the body. Moat of the disease manifestations are just repercussions from the daily lifestyle. She designed a data-driven curriculum for us to introduce our fellowship – Aaroogya Research and Public Health Fellowship (ARPHF),” Priyanjali narrates how Aaroogya introduced their prestigious fellowship for sprouting women changemakers in India.

From Breast Cancer To Holistic Healthcare

Recently, Aaroogya branched out into the domain of holistic healthcare alongside their dedicated breast cancer segment. In collaboration with the Central Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Priyanjali launched the Swasthya Nari Sashakta Buxar initiative in Buxar, Bihar, which

Brought 10,000 rural women into the ambit of overall health checkups and consequent treatments.

“I consider this a huge step for Aaroogya towards a bright future where we don’t just limit ourselves to breast cancer awareness, but effectively offer complete healthcare services to village women,” reiterates Priyanjali.

In the Bihar Aaroogya camps, the women were screened for breast cancer, cervical cancer, nutritional deficiency as well as made aware about menstrual hygiene. They also conducted malnutrition surveys among children and offered prostate cancer, kidney damage and hepatitis screening for men.

The Challenges & The Solution

For all these years, the entire funding for Aaroogya came from Priyanjali’s personal savings and contributions from her father, Sanjit Dutta. She might have received endless honours for her amazing efforts, but the sustainability of her non-profit foundation worries her the most.

With Aaroogya propagating into the fields of telemedicine, AI-based health programmes and advanced technology, she sincerely hopes the support for her work continues to pour in from all walks of society. Recently, she was felicitated by WEFT as the Young Achiever of The Year.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

To Protect Their Villages From Cancer Risk, Children Practise Organic Farming After School Hours

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In 2018, Shirol Taluka in Kolhapur, Maharashtra reigned the headlines for a considerable time, for a highly concerning reason – the cancer menace. Cancer spread like an epidemic with one or more patients in almost every family. While the government introduced schemes and strategies to combat the imminent hazard, the villagers in the neighbouring Hatkanangale Taluka were crippled with fear. They dreaded a similar scourge of cancer in their own homes.

While the adults turned to the supernatural beliefs for safety, the children of Hatkanangale took up the onus of probing the reason behind the cancer epidemic. Guided by fellows of non-profit foundation Insight Walk, these kids were already well-aware about how harmful chemicals in food can lead to cancer. Talking to their own parents, who were all predominantly farmers, they found out that modern farming resorts to a lot of toxic chemical pesticides and fertilisers, unlike traditional farming which was completely organic. Their grandparents corroborated their findings, as they shared how diseases occurred much less in their times, due to organic farming practices.

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

Children turned organic farmers after school hours

The children then decided to start organic farming on their own. Securing small vacant plots here and there, or perhaps a small corner of their family land, they tilled the land after school hours and sowed seeds. Using bio-manure made from their household waste, they nourished the tomato, aubergine or marigold plants until they bore healthy fruits and vibrant flowers. They even insisted their school cooks to use these vegetables in their mid-day meal.

Children Practise Organic Farming
A girl documenting the process of organic farming while her friends plant leafy greens

“After their successful pilot, now in the summer holidays, they will roll out organic farming in an entire field and at the same time encourage other farmers to pick it up,” Sanket Jain, co-founder of Insight Walk, shared in a Facebook post. Each of the kids used their own acumen and passion for contributing to the project. While the aspiring painters drew comics and sketches demonstrating the procedure and results, the would-be writers jotted down the entire experience to help others learn about it in details.

Children Practise Organic Farming
A sketch of organic farming

About Insight Walk

However, it would be a misnomer to say that this organic farming project is one of the most successful ones conducted by Insight Walk. The organisation has been actively working in eight villages in Kolhapur trying to mentor the children, providing them with the best of life skills, extra-curricular activities and practical on-hand experience with textbook concepts.

“We work with children in the age group of 6 to 14 years. Most of them hail from lesser privileged families in villages which lack even the basic facilities. Early marriage, child labour, dropping out of school are common as age-old patriarchy reigns above everything,” shares Subodh Jain, co-founder of Insight Walk, in a conversation with Efforts For Good.

Insight Walk fellowship chooses leaders among marginalised women

Insight Walk works in a fascinating way which makes them stand out in the domain of community development. “Each year, we select Insight Walk Fellows from among the women in these village communities, each of whom plays a key role in the activities doled out for the rest of the year. However, unlike conventional practice, our selection procedure for the fellows does not have education, age or leadership quality as hardcore criteria,” shares Subodh.

Intriguingly, women of all ages comprise the batch of selected fellows for a particular year. Most of them are victims of patriarchal oppression, often domestic violence. Most have never had a chance to complete school, let alone aspire for financial independence. But, the thing all of them have in common is an indomitable grit.

Children Practise Organic Farming
An Insight Walk fellow training kids in stitching

“Each of our fellows has expertise and experience in something or the other, be it farming or pottery, teaching or stitching. So, we coordinate with each individually and design specific courses to train the children. Then they are assigned to lead the Community Centres in the villages, where the children are groomed after their school hours,” informs Subodh.

Kids learn physics and stitching with equal ease

There was a time when life for the children was riddled with hardships. Girls would join school well-aware that they would never get to graduate. Their aspirations were cut short by societal and financial constraints, which compelled them to drop out early on trivial reasons.

“Sometimes, they would stop going as they outgrew their uniform or cannot afford a school bag. We could have easily helped them out with crisp new uniforms or shiny new bags. Instead, we decided to introduce them to stitching. Now, they can easily design their own dresses and stitch beautiful cloth bags. Since the blanket ban on plastic bags in Maharashtra, these kids are most enthusiastic about making cloth bags and spreading the idea among the village elders as well,” narrates Subodh.

Children Practise Organic Farming
Kids show the bags they made

“Once popular notion was that boys never do womanly work like stitching on knitting. We have successfully dispelled the stereotype and taught the boys who perceive the craft as just another life skill. Now you will find them excitedly mending tears on their clothes or sewing buttons,” he adds.

The Innovation and Passion Lab

The community centre is like a dreamland for the kids. They make toys, innovate makeshift machines, practise art – everything with locally available resources. Recycling as a principle has been deeply inculcated in these young minds, so they do not let even a small item go to waste. Instead, they turn it into something beautiful, useful and worth cherishing.

The Innovation and Passion Lab is an interesting addition to the community centres where “children learn multiple skills based on their interests with the help of local mentors and rural artists.”
Traditional artwork adorns the walls of these community centres, painted by village artists who have spent a lifetime mastering the craft. Children, who are passionate about art, learn from the local maestros and assist them in projects at the community centres and embellishing their own homes.

Children Practise Organic Farming
Some eco-friendly crafts

Rural poets, musicians, singers, writers, artisans etc. partner with the Insight fellows to mentor the children in the rural heritage and culture that is dying out slowly.

Efforts For Good take

Rural kids are deprived of wide-scale exposure to knowledge – so goes the stereotype. Insight Walk proved how India’s rural communities hold a treasure trove of knowledge on life skills and a self-sustainable way of living. The children under their ambit are growing up with an amazing blend of wisdom – where tradition meets modernity. So the girl who dreams of becoming a police inspector someday can easily tutor someone in the nitty-gritty of organic farming. Efforts For Good applauds the incredible efforts of Subodh and Sanket Jain in shaping childhoods into ideal future citizens.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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