Did you know that in India, every year, around 50,000 children are diagnosed with cancer, and because of the disparity in income and wealth across the country, only about 22 percent make it to hospitals for treatment?
What is even more tragic is that at the time of diagnosis, most of these children are found to be malnourished.
This brings us to a very grave and pertinent question—is medical intervention and chemotherapy alone enough to treat cancer?
The same way that plants need sunlight to grow and survive, proper nutrition is essential for the good health and well-being of human beings. It becomes even more crucial when they are unwell, especially in the case of children, as the medication and treatment depletes their small bodies of essential nutrients and compromises their immune system’s ability to fight the disease.
In this scenario, consuming healthy and nutritious food, would not only strengthen the body’s immunity, but it would also enable the healing process to occur faster.
Sadly, nutrition takes an unintentional backseat for parents from low-income backgrounds, who end up spending most of their savings on the treatment. It is also important to remember that as much as cancer is tough on the person who is suffering, it is equally devastating and draining for parents and caregivers, who often ignore their health in the process.
While there are government institutions as well as NGOs that provide medical care and monetary support for those who can’t afford it, even these organisations fail to give nutrition the attention it desperately requires.
However, all hope is not lost, as this Mumbai-based organisation has been bringing holistic food and nutrition to underprivileged children fighting cancer since 2011 and through a nationwide network of collaborations with hospitals and nutritionists including Tata Memorial Centre and AIIMS, it has reached out to over 35,000 children till date.
A moment of epiphany for Purnota Bahl led to her establish Cuddles Foundation, which is India’s only organisation that provides a dedicated, nutrition-centred service charted down by professional nutritionists for underprivileged families fighting cancer.
An alumnus of the Indian School of Business (ISB), Purnota comes from a marketing background and had been pledging a part of her salary to the Tata Memorial Hospital for many years in the hope that it would fund the treatment of cancer-afflicted kids from low-income households.
After giving birth to her first child, Purnota was on maternity leave and was visiting the Tata Memorial Hospital to follow-up on how her donated money was being utilised, when she came across a sight that would forever change the course of her life, as well as that of thousands of kids across the country.
“I was crossing one of the wards, and my eyes fell upon the tiny foot of a baby girl, probably few months old. Although I never got to see her face, her legs reminded me of my own daughter, who was around the same age at that time. The fact that the child inside could have been mine was the moment of epiphany which not just broke me, emotionally, but drove me further to act upon it,” remembers Purnota.
An extremely overwhelmed Purnota then headed straight to the hospital’s social worker and told her about wanting to do more for the children and how could she help. The latter told her that while the hospital received funds and donations for treatment on a daily basis, there was no money donated for food!
This reality gave Purnota a sense of purpose, and she immediately decided to route all her funds to meet the nutritional requirements for underprivileged children and their caregivers as and when informed by the social worker at Tata Memorial.
What began as a self-funded initiative soon began to exceed the financial capabilities of Purnota and her husband, but nothing was going to deter her from her chosen path. She quit her job, teamed up with her friends, and launched the Cuddles Foundation as a social startup in 2011.
Today, the organisation, which is a 100 percent women-run establishment, has branched out to 13 cities across India with 22 hospitals on board as their partners to the cause. Each of these hospitals has assigned nutritionists, who interact with the kids and their parents to understand and assess the level of malnutrition and the kind of cancer.
Following this, a diet plan, which is a combination of supplements as well as food, is prepared. This role makes every nutritionist associated with Cuddles central to its core ideology and vision with which it was started.
To further understand what goes behind the involvement of a nutritionist, The Better India spoke to Mitika Kashyap, who is one of the dedicated pediatric nutritionists at AIIMS working in tandem with Cuddles.
Interestingly, AIIMS was Mitika’s first workplace, and shortly after she had joined, she was roped into the programme by Sameer Bakshi, the head of Oncology department at the institute in 2015.
Life has changed for Mitika ever since and she now views it through a completely different perspective—that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.
“Unlike the 9-to-5 job of a regular dietician, working with Cuddles rendered more meaning to my professional life by opening a window into the world of kids suffering from cancer. Our work isn’t just limited to telling the parents what to eat but goes much beyond that. Through regular interactions, we become a crucial part of the lives of these children, and while many make it, many sadly don’t. This connection goes beyond the working hours and I’ve often had survivor kids and their parents drop by to say a ‘hi’ or sometimes, even leave a flower!” she says.
Mitika also shares that seeing such young children face cancer with such a positive outlook and strength has provided her with experiential learning, during which she has seen both ups and downs. Till date, she has worked with over 500 kids, and nothing gives her more joy than being associated with such a noble cause, thanks to Cuddles.
Besides the inclusion of nutritionists to their cause and providing food like eggs, bananas, dry fruits, ghee, milkshake and lassi along with nutritional supplements like Pediasure, Pediagold, Threptin biscuits and feeding tubes as per need, Cuddles also has a few amazing programmes which focus on helping families from low-income groups.
From providing fresh, nutritionally balanced, calorie-appropriate hot meals to every child visiting the hospital for treatment to giving monthly ration supplies to a family of 3 for a year to reduce treatment dropout, Cuddles is silently bringing forth a revolutionary model for cancer care, that organisations across the country could definitely learn from and implement in their framework.
Recently, Cuddles also launched a mid-day meal scheme for parents who spend hours making hospital rounds, as a giveback to the caregivers who usually forget that they need to take care of themselves, as well.
At present, only a few hospitals have these schemes rolling, owing to funding overheads, but the organisation’s future goal is to scale up these initiatives and ensure that nutrition is seen as a fundamental aspect for cancer care and support.
On a parting note, Purnota makes it a point to mention that one must not consider pursuing philanthropy after retirement. “In recent years, one can see a steady rise in startups, whose model of operations is centred on driving social impact. The idea that only retired people engage in philanthropy is a myth we need to bust by considering the field as a serious career option,” she says.
For more information on Cuddles Foundation and their extraordinary initiatives, you can look up their website here. You can reach out to them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call on (022) 61737000.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)