Bringing cancer care closer home
Access to quality and affordable treatment closer home gives cancer patients new hope
When 43-year-old Bikas Sarma (name changed) was first diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma in February 2020, he was shattered. This cancer affects the lymphatic system, and Mr Sarma's condition was serious enough that the doctors advised he begin a chemotherapy protocol immediately.
But that seemed impossible. Mr Sarma lived in a remote town called Sibsagar, situated 370km away from Guwahati in Assam. There were no cancer care facilities anywhere near. Like thousands of patients from remote towns and villages in India, Mr Sarma was told he had to move to a metro city to get specialised treatment.
Mr Sarma chose Chennai in Tamil Nadu, but affording the treatment was another challenge. "I had to sell my property to bear the cost of the treatment at these distant locations," he recalls, emotionally.
The treatment protocol called for chemotherapy every 21 days. Unfortunately, just after his first chemotherapy session, the nation went into lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This added to his misery. "In the early days of the lockdown, I had to live at a bus stand without food," he says.
So, Mr Sarma travelled back to Guwahati for two more chemotherapy cycles, but financial constraints and travel restrictions drove him home to Sibsagar after the third session. This is a common characteristic of most cancer patients in India, who typically drop out of their treatment mid-way due to lack of finances and lack of accessibility to treatment options.
However, Mr Sarma's story took a turn for the better when he heard about Onco Care Centre, day care facility newly started at the Assam Medical College and Hospital in Dibrugarh, Assam. The centre was established by the Assam Cancer Care Foundation (ACCF) in June 2020.
ACCF is a cancer care initiative established by the Tata Trusts in 2017, in partnership with the Government of Assam. The Trusts have been actively engaged in cancer care since 1941 when the Tata Memorial Hospital opened its doors in Mumbai. Since then, the Trusts have set up cancer research and treatment centres across the country.
Along the lines of ACCF, the Trusts have partnered with state governments to build state-wide networks of cancer-facility in Assam, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa. These centres enable patients to access comprehensive diagnostic and full-fledged treatment facilities, closer home.
Among these facilities are the Onco Care Centres, which aim to strengthen cancer care delivery in the near term, while the establishment of full-fledged oncology facilities are underway. These centres offer chemotherapy, consultation and diagnostic facilities free of cost.
As of January 2021, the Onco Care centre at Dibrugarh is the only day care centre in the eastern most part of India, catering to the people of Assam and the neighbouring states of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. "Since the beginning of operations in June 2020, the day care has attended to more than 5000 OPDs and referral consultations," says Dr Uma Shankar Kutum – Medical Oncologist, Onco Care Centre, Dibrugarh. Around 3000 new cases have been registered, added Dr Kutum, with around 700 chemotherapy sessions.
For Mr Sarma, learning about the Dibrugarh Onco Care Centre was a ray of hope and he decided to continue his chemotherapy sessions there. He is doing well under the care of Dr Kutum's team. Relieved from the stress of travelling to distant locations, incurring travel, accommodation and other incidental expenses, Mr Sarma has almost recovered and has regained his faith that he will continue to live a disease-free life.