A 28-year-old woman was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer through a door-to-door awareness and detection campaign. It may seem that there is nothing remarkable about this piece of news. That is until you learn of the circumstances surrounding this particular case.
The village elders and family members have never allowed women to consult doctors – ever. In their eyes, exposing yourself to the doctor, allowing the doctor to touch you, examine you, are forbidden acts. This particular woman was a high-risk case – her 65-year-old mother has been treated with chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, and her grandfather too had cancer. And yet, the family did not allow her to get herself regularly examined by doctors.
The only reason why this was detected at an early stage was that of the early door-to-door detection and preventive healthcare model of Aaroogya, a not-for-profit organisation that focuses on detection and prevention of breast cancer in highly vulnerable areas.
It is by their sheer persistence and perseverance that they deliver impact, and this case is just one of the thousands that unfortunately form the standard case study.
While in developed economies, the five-year-survival rate for early detected breast cancer cases has been increasing, India, unfortunately, continues to have a low survival rate with 66.1% women being diagnosed between 2010 and 2014, a Lancet study found.
In India, due to late diagnosis, eight out of 10 women do not survive for more than five years of treatment.
Aaroogya is looking to change this. One of the pillars behind this healthcare model is 24-year-old Dr Priyanjali Datta. The reason I chose to mention her age is that she is doing phenomenal work and through her organisation, Aaroogya, has screened 5,00,000 women across Delhi/NCR, Haryana, and North Eastern states, including West Bengal for breast cancer.
In a conversation with The Better India, Dr Datta speaks about how Aaroogya came into being, the need to address public health systems and the way forward.
“I was in college when the urge to do something meaningful struck. We would conduct and participate in fashion shows as a means to earning money. All the earnings would then be spent on conducting public health awareness camps,” she says. What began on a small scale kept gathering momentum.
“It was in 2017 during my internship that I registered Aaroogya as a not-for-profit organisation and started work full-fledged.”
“We identify a vulnerable location and work in that area. I hail from Meghalaya and the incidence of breast cancer in the North East states is very high. This could also be due to the excess consumption of areca nuts,” she says.
One of the most common types of cancers occurring in India is breast cancer, followed by lung cancer and cervical cancer. The Indian Council of Medical Research in its projection has said that by 2020, the number of reported cases is likely to reach 17.3 lakhs.
‘Each house is a new experience’
At 24, Dr Datta tells us that a common hurdle that she has to cross when she meets patients is for them to take her seriously and pay heed to what she says.
“We encounter a lot of problems and even hostility from the young girls. The older women who are married and have a child are easier to speak to. The older women (upwards of 26 years of age) have faced or are going through health issues that they find difficult to discuss and hence our intervention is something that they welcome,” she says.
She tells us how even before embarking on this project, she and her team were warned, “We were told about how unwelcoming and dangerous the territory we were entering into was. However, we found a way to enter that zone,” she says.
She continues, “In working in the hinterland of India, we have come across so many kinds of people and communities. We worked in one village where, on an average, each family had five children, the maximum going up to 12. In another village, we found women to be so oppressed that their husbands would stand guard when we would talk to the women.”
Aaroogya – taking healthcare to the people
In establishing Aaroogya, Dr Datta and her team wanted to take healthcare to villages and communities who remain in the background.
She says, “When we conduct a survey, we often ask the women about previous visits that they have had with the PHC doctors, and you will be surprised that more than 90% answer in the negative. The women in these communities cannot travel and hence, for them to travel to see a doctor is next to impossible.”
“They look at us with such expectations and feel that all their troubles will vanish once they meet us.”
She shares, “I realised very early on that unless we barge into their homes and force them to speak and let us examine them, we will never know what issues trouble them. The Public Health domain until then will remain incomplete.”
The Future of Aaroogya
The team is ensuring that they provide these women with much-needed supplements along with regular health check-ups. They are also working on developing an IoT-based device, which will self-record the vitals of the patient and also work in an offline mode.
With a team that is equally passionate about making a difference to the public healthcare domain, Dr Priyanjali Datta marches ahead.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)
You May Also Like: A Conqueror’s Tale on How to Beat Cancer