TBI Blogs: This Small-Scale Farmer Bravely Fought Cancer and Is Now Helping Others Fight Tobacco Addiction

Meet Durgaiah, a farmer and a cancer survivor who not only won the battle against throat cancer, but is now using his second chance at life to train, counsel, and inspire. Dr. Pragati Hebbar explores further.

Settled in a quaint village called Hunsemaradoddi off Kanakpura in Karnataka resides Durgaiah, a small-scale farmer who used to grow ragi, a millet. Very early in life, he got hooked to tobacco use in the form of beedi. Exposed to the habit in his school days, he recalls how common it was for young boys to experiment with tobacco products. The first puff soon turned to a couple of beedis a day, to almost two bundles – with roughly 20-24 beedis in each bundle – a day.

By the time he was in his early forties, Durgaiah’s lungs could no longer take the burden of this excessive addiction, and he was advised by his doctors to give up the habit. This prompted him to reduce, but he couldn’t give it up entirely, and in fact started using chewing tobacco to distract himself from smoking beedis, assuming it was a safer alternative.

The long-standing exposure to such carcinogenic products finally showed their effect around six years ago, when he observed a change in his voice texture, which sounded hoarse. Over the span of a few months, he could barely speak, and finally found it difficult to breathe. This is when he panicked and rushed to Bangalore to understand what was causing this difficulty.

He was referred from one hospital to another, and finally met an oncosurgeon who broke the news to him about voice-box cancer, but at the same time gave him hope that he would be able to speak again.

Durgaiah underwent the surgery and radiotherapy, and was cured of the cancer. He loved to speak and was engaged in local theater and drama, and had never felt as handicapped as he did when he lost his voice. Additionally, he’d have to pay an additional ₹30,000 for a prosthesis, to get his voice back.

An elderly gentleman in the same hospital was suffering from a similar condition, and had ordered for an imported prosthesis which had arrived, but unfortunately he didn’t survive the surgery. His spouse graciously offered to donate the voice prosthesis to Durgaiah.

After the surgery, the day he received the voice prosthesis, Durgaiah spoke the whole day, as excited as a young infant who had spoken his first word. He vowed to spread the word on cancer and prevent other people undergoing the suffering and hardship he did.

He laments how an innocent-seeming habit nearly cost him his life and wiped out his hard-earned savings.

Tobacco use claims a million lives each year in India. Durgaiah shudders at the fact that he could have been part of this statistic if he hadn’t received timely intervention. In his neighborhood, he leaves no stone unturned to convince people—especially the youth—addicted to tobacco to give up. He has volunteered to speak at various fora with the Institute of Public Health. There, he sensitizes children, law enforcers, policy makers, and anyone else who doesn’t realize the hazards of tobacco use.

Taking his own example, he strongly believes that awareness on the dangerous and addictive nature of these products is lacking. For example, he strongly believes that the previous warnings of the tobacco packets barely conveyed any message. He is an avid supporter of the large new tobacco package warnings containing photographs of actual cancer patients.

He greatly appreciates this step which makes India one of the leaders globally in this preventive tobacco control measure.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This phrase perfectly defines Durgaiah’s journey from a small-scale farmer, to a forceful health advocate-cum-motivational speaker.

(The author is a Faculty Member working with the Institute of Public Health, Bengaluru (IPH)).

Help IPH strengthen Indian health systems by contributing to research, training, and policy support initiatives here.

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