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.

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Emergency funds sent to 250 families

 

“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.

Aaroogya

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.

Aaroogya

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

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Emergency funds sent to 250 families

Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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